In his inaugural speech, Gov. Peter Shumlin proposed that students eligible for reduced price lunches receive meals for free. Several days later, identical bills were circulating in both the House and Senate that propose to do just that.
The House legislation, which was introduced by more than 50 representatives, proposes that the state cover the cost of the 40 cent reduced lunch fee eligible students now pay. If it passes, Vermont will be the first state with such a law.
This week, food service directors, state child nutrition program staff and advocacy groups urged the House Education Committee to sign off on the bill and send it to the floor.
“It’s a bargain,” Dorigen Keeney, a dietician and program director for Hunger Free Vermont, told lawmakers. Keeney said that if the state steps in to cover the cost — roughly $300,000 per year — it will see greater gains in student academic performance, attendance and behavior.
In a string of testimony that started Monday, each stakeholder reiterated the same observation — many students eligible for reduced-price lunches don’t participate because their families can’t afford the 40 cent portion of the meal that they are required to pay.
The reduced lunch program is made available to families with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty line — for a family of four, eligible income is $30,000 to $42,600. During the 2011-2012 year, 3,539 students — roughly 60 percent of those eligible — received reduced price lunches. The total number of students enrolled has declined slightly during the last several years, while enrollment in the free meal program has increased.
Laurie Colgan, director of child nutrition programs for the Agency of Education, expects the participation rate among students getting reduced-price lunch to jump by 25 percent if the bill passes. The projection is based on the rise in school breakfast participation after Vermont passed a law in 2008 that made breakfast free for reduced-price students.
The school lunch bill, which calls for $322,250 from the General Fund, anticipates a 25 percent increase in its federal funding allocation. The federal government reimburses schools $2.52 per reduced-price meal.
Food service directors from Burlington and Morrisville told the committee that students often cannot afford the 40 cent a day difference for lunch. Jeff Brynn, Morrisville food service director, said he could name a dozen of the 50 reduced-price students that fall into this category. “It seems as though 40 cents is not a lot to charge but for many of our students it proves to be enough for them not to eat,” Brynn said.
The law would also ease the financial burden on food service programs, Keeney said. When reduced-price students can’t pay, it puts food service directors in the uncomfortable position of having to decide whether to feed students free of charge — prohibited by USDA rules — or watch them go hungry. When they choose the former, it strains their already tight budgets. Roughly 90 percent of food service programs “run in the red,” according to Doug Davis, food services director for the Burlington schools and the president of the School Nutrition Association of Vermont. If they opt for the latter, “What that means for us is constant phone calls to families” who owe lunch money to the school, Davis said.
“More important than that,” Davis said, the bill “will eliminate the stigma and the anxiety at the family level.” Most schools have computerized systems, so students don’t see who pays what for a meal. But Keegan and Davis both testified that the safeguard doesn’t do away with the stigma around subsidized meals. “Children are definitely being identified,” Davis said. When reduced-price families don’t have enough money to make an advance deposit into their child’s account, the child shows up with four dimes on a day-to-day basis, which identifies them as beneficiaries of the program.
Hunger Free Vermont has been advocating for the change for three years. When lawmakers asked Keeney if she thought the bill went far enough to addressing the needs of low-income Vermonters, she told them, “I think it will go a long way,” but pointed out that it provided no support for families just over the 185 percent threshold.
Lawmakers inquired into the cost of providing free meals to all students. Keegan said Hunger Free Vermont’s “back-of-the-envelope estimate” is $30 million a year.