Should all Vermont students get free breakfast and lunch?

Published: Jan. 14, 2020 at 5:29 PM EST
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Should all Vermont school kids be fed at school for free regardless of how much their families can pay? And what would it cost taxpayers? Our Cat Viglienzoni has been digging into the numbers.

When I first reported on universal meals last January, I was told there would be a push to bring them statewide. But no one then could tell me what it would cost taxpayers. And a year later, they still can't. But despite not having a price tag yet, they want lawmakers to take action to bring equity to the school cafeteria.

Students at the Integrated Arts Academy in Burlington file through the lunch line picking their favorite foods.

"The things that I like are cheesy breadsticks, pizza and we once had fish sticks," said Aiden Argraves, a fifth-grader.

"Mine is a tuna fish wrap," said Lexie Bell, a fifth-grader.

"The salad bar is really good," said Sawyer Paschel-Harbor, a fifth-grader.

"I know this sounds really gross, but it's actually really good: ham, cheese, ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. It's delicious! In my opinion," said Hannah Knowles, a fifth-grader.

No matter what they like, all of them can hit the hot food line or the salad bar because their school has universal meals. Integrated Arts is one of 55 Vermont schools that currently offer universal meals under a federal program.

"It's well-established that a hungry child cannot learn," said Heather Torrey, the assistant director of the Burlington School Food Project and the president of the Vermont School Nutrition Association.

Torrey says being able to feed all their students levels the playing field.

"It acts as a universal equalizer," she said.

Torrey also says staff can focus on preparing good food, not on chasing down unpaid bills.

"Our students aren't worrying where are they going to get their lunch from, do I have money on my account," Torrey said.

A 2017 study from the University of Vermont found that with universal meals, kids had greater access to food. There was more local food in school cafeterias. There was also a greater readiness to learn among students. There was less financial pressure for everybody. And also, a better overall social climate.

"This bill gives students access to consistently healthy food: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats and appropriate nutrition," said Kathy Alexander, the school nutrition director at the Mount Abraham United School District.

Tuesday, advocates at the Statehouse announced a new bill that would bring free breakfast and lunch to all schools over the next five years, and put a focus on buying local food.

"Making sure our students are well-nourished contributes not only to the quality of their lives but the quality of their learning," said John Tinney of the Vermont NEA.

Torrey says having universal meals districtwide in Burlington would make life easier for families at their three schools that currently are not able to offer them.

"It's very confusing for parents," Torrey said. "And it's hard for us to try to explain that to parents, as well."

While all that sounds good, it's going to hinge on the cost and that's where I found the details are still murky.

The bill's sponsor said on Tuesday it would cost $4 million in the first year. That's not much.

But when I dug a little deeper, I found that isn't a good representation of what it will ultimately cost taxpayers each year because that number is going to go up each year as more schools enroll over the five-year period.

In a memo last year to the Senate Agriculture Committee, the Agency of Education estimated that universal meals statewide could cost around $50 million.

I called Hunger Free Vermont Tuesday afternoon and they told me they're still working to figure out the final costs. But their very early estimate is around $20 million. Their executive director told me they're confident it will not be as high as $50 million.

The bill says the cost of the meals that are not reimbursed by federal funding or other sources would be the district's responsibility, and ultimately that of the education fund.

I did the math and $20 million is about 1.2% of our overall education spending.