The Vermont Legislature this year approved $29 million in spending from the state Education Fund for free meals for all public and independent school students. The 2023 Legislature will need to decide whether to continue this program, using state funding.
S.100 creates a one-year universal school meal program that provides free breakfast and lunch for all public school students and independent school students who attend on public tuition, the Campaign for Vermont reports.
It is notable that thirty-eight percent of Vermont students during 2019 – 2020 qualified for free and reduced price lunches. Legislators were also reminded that students need fresh and nutritional foods to help them focus on their education. Sadly, they also learned that many students come to school hungry. During the first year of the pandemic, nearly one-third of children in Vermont faced food insecurity.
A report in 2019 found that up to forty-two percent of children living in food-insecure homes were not eligible to participate in the free and reduced lunch program. The legislature learned that school meals support the Vermont agricultural economy and that the meal programs help improve the overall school climate, make financial differences less visible, and improve student readiness.
During the past two years the federal government paid for meals for all students through the pandemic. However, waivers expired this past June, meaning that over 40,000 children could loose access to school meals. It was estimated that a one-year program could cost Vermont up to $29M. Hunger Free Vermont, a non-profit leading a campaign to bring universal school meals to every public school in the state, supports the one-year program and noted that reporting back during a ‘normal’ year might provide a more accurate cost.
Legislators also learned that 55 percent of Vermont students live in households with incomes too high to qualify but are living in households dealing with food insufficiency. The bill will also benefit these students. Section 3 of the bill notes that breakfasts can be either picked up by students or made available in classrooms. Federal school lunch legislation encourages schools to seek the highest level of participation possible to ensure that each student is ready to learn and also requires that schools pursue the maximum federal funds allowed. It also puts a one year moratorium on schools to ask for an exemption from the program.
Section 3 also details how schools participating in community eligibility provisions (provision 2) can access federal funds and allows the Agency of Education to use the universal income declaration form to collect the household income information required to apply for federal funds.
The bill was reviewed and approved as amended by the House Ways & Means, Appropriations and Education committees and by the Senate Education, Finance and Appropriations Committees and signed into law by the Governor. This act requires the Agency of Education to report to the House and Senate committees of jurisdiction and the Joint Fiscal Office to report on potential revenue sources not normally used for general fund purposes.
The bill passed the House 93-33 on a “division” vote. No roll call was held.