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On Wednesday morning, lawmakers in the cafeteria of the Vermont Statehouse were greeted with a small breakfast spread, free of charge: cups of granola parfait, homemade cinnamon rolls, and a bowl of apples with individually wrapped pieces of Cabot cheese.
Those offerings, courtesy of public school officials, were there to illustrate a campaign to make breakfast and lunch in Vermont schools permanently free.
“We're celebrating universal school meals today,” said Karyl Kent, school nutrition director at the Lamoille North School District, showing a reporter the assorted breakfast options. “And we're asking legislators to make it permanent.”
Since 2020, Vermont children have had access to free breakfast and lunch at school.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, an infusion of public dollars paid for breakfast and lunch for all Vermont public school students, as well as students attending private schools with public money.
Now, with the latest infusion of funds drying up, advocates are urging lawmakers to fund school meals indefinitely.
“The pandemic has been a horrible, horrible thing in so many ways,” Anore Horton, executive director of the nonprofit Hunger Free Vermont, said in an interview. “And the discovery that it's possible and desirable to do universal school meals is one silver lining.”
Hunger Free Vermont has been pushing lawmakers to provide free meals to schoolchildren since before the Covid-19 pandemic struck the state.
The nonprofit’s efforts are bolstered by a deep-pocketed donor: Solving Hunger, an initiative of venture capitalist and philanthropist Bradley Tusk, is helping fund Hunger Free Vermont’s 2023 campaign for a permanent program, as well as programs in other states.
The benefits, advocates argue, are immense. For food-insecure families — many of whom are ineligible for federally funded meal benefits — school meals can become a financial lifesaver and cornerstone of children’s diets.
Horton pointed to research showing that free meals improve students’ health, academic performance, and behavior in schools. They also provide an economic benefit to local communities and farms. And, she said, making meals free for all — not just low-income students — removes the stigma around buying lunch or breakfast.
“So there's pretty dramatic benefits in terms of better student learning, better student health, better student attendance, and overall better campus climate,” she said in an interview.
In March 2020, as the coronavirus shut down swaths of the U.S. economy, Congress passed a sweeping relief bill intended to blunt the economic impact of the virus.
That bill paid for free breakfast and lunch for schoolchildren across the country. In 2021, federal officials announced that the program would be renewed for a second year.
But in the spring of 2022, as those federal funds were scheduled to dry up, state lawmakers tapped an “unprecedented” surplus in the state education fund to pay for the Universal School Meals Act, a $29 million, one-year extension of the free meal program.
In legislation codifying that program, lawmakers noted that it was their intent “to identify the amount of and sources of potential long-term funding for universal school meals in Vermont.”
Between October 2019 and October 2022, participation in Vermont’s school meal programs has risen about 10%, according to state data.
Initially, the state’s Joint Fiscal Office estimated that a universal school meals program could cost between $24 million and $40 million a year.
In a report Jan. 16, however, the Vermont Agency of Education estimated that actual costs would likely be on the lower end of those estimates. Officials said they expected the program to cost about $27 million this year — though they cautioned that those figures could change by the time school lets out.
But that report, and Horton, pointed to a handful of recent or upcoming federal policy changes around school meals, including increased reimbursement rates, better eligibility data, and expanding the number of schools able to participate in a targeted program for low-income areas.
Those changes, Horton said, would make a potential Vermont program cheaper and easier to implement. Now, she and other advocates have been making their pitch to a series of legislative committees — and to hungry cafeteria visitors.
The question, though, is where money for such a program could come from. Last year, lawmakers commissioned a report from the state’s Joint Fiscal Office “examining possible revenue sources” for a permanent universal meals program.
Those potential sources include expanding the state’s sales tax base, a tax on sugary beverages, and “other sources of revenue not ordinarily used for General Fund purposes,” according to statute. That report is due Feb. 1.
Asked about their positions on a permanent meal program, legislative leaders have preached caution around spending, noting that federal pandemic dollars are drying up.
"We are thankful that Vermont emerged as a leader nationally on food security throughout the pandemic, in part as a result of extending the previously federally-funded school meals program using a surplus in the state education fund,” Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, said in an emailed statement. “We will be doing our due diligence this session to carefully consider all needs, recognizing that we don't have the influx of federal funds that enabled this pilot program this past year."
House Speaker Rep. Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, said in a statement that she is “looking forward to investigating and discussing long-term solutions to all of our food programs.”
“While we will not have the same access to federal funds, I look forward to working with Vermont students, our community partners, and others to find a sustainable path for Universal School Meals,” Krowinski said.
Jason Maulucci, a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott, said Scott “has said he is open to having the conversation, and supports efforts to ensure all students who need school meal assistance get it.”
But last year, Scott took a hard stance against tax increases — and in Maulucci’s statement, he reemphasized that position.
“However, he has also been clear that he will not support regressive tax increases that disproportionately harm those who can least afford it as a way to pay for students who come from families with greater means to get free meals,” he said.
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