Vt. students pressure gov. to sign universal school meal bill

Published: May. 23, 2023 at 6:20 PM EDT|Updated: May. 23, 2023 at 6:42 PM EDT
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ESSEX JCT.,Vt. (WCAX) - Essex High School students made their case to the governor Tuesday for a universal school meals bill headed to his desk.

A group of students and universal school meal advocates chanted “Let’s pass this bill” in front of Essex High School.

The universal meals started during the pandemic and were paid for with federal funds. House Bill 165, which was approved by the Legislature, would make the program permanent and would be paid for with $29 million from the Education Fund to cover the cost. Pre-pandemic, about 33,000 students took advantage of the free meals. As of last fall, that number has increased to over 50,000.

“It is an impact I have definitely seen reach students,” said Samantha Donahey, an Essex 10th grader. She says she remembers the stigma of an unpaid or out-of-balance lunch tab and says the bill would make that a thing of the past. “It was something you could definitely recognize very often -- almost a luxury to bring your lunch from home because that meant your family could afford to do that.”

That is on top of guaranteed food for any student that needs it. “The amount of food students are getting every day, everyone is able to get the same amount of nutrition to get through the school day and do their best learning,” Donahey said.

But Governor Phil Scott has said he is opposed to using state money in what he has already called an unsustainable budget that relies on new taxes and fees. He says the measure pays for affluent students’ lunches with tax increases affecting lower-income families.

But supporters say those concerns don’t outweigh the benefits. “We pay for their education so we should get the biggest bang for their education buck,” said Teddy Waszazak with Hunger Free Vermont.

A spokesman for the governor Tuesday said they have not yet received the bill from the Legislature and that Governor Scott has not decided whether he will sign it.

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