July 27, 2022

The governor of Vermont, Phil Scott, recently signed the Universal School Meals Act (S.100). This legislation makes free breakfasts and lunches available to all students in the state for the 2022–2023 school year. Vermont is the third state to pass Healthy School Meals for All legislation, following California and Maine. Several other states are working to enact similar policies.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, schools have been able to offer breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge, allowing all children to experience the critical health and educational benefits associated with school meals. This was done through Congress giving the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nationwide waiver authority.

Congress extended the child nutrition waivers that supported free summer meals to all students for an additional year, but did not extend the waiver that allowed schools to offer free meals to all.

FRAC along with a number of our national partners called on Congress to finish the job and extend the waiver into school year 2022–2023. In the meantime, the leadership of Vermont and other states on this issue is critical to supporting much needed access to school meals.

FRAC spoke with Faye Mack, the Advocacy and Education director at Hunger Free Vermont, to learn more. Read her interview below.

FRAC: What is the importance of school meal programs in Vermont?

Mack: Like most places in the United States, food insecurity has skyrocketed during the pandemic. In 2021, one in three people in Vermont faced hunger. Families with children were five times more likely to face hunger than those without children. We know that families with kids are really struggling to make ends meet, especially right now with rising fuel costs. The cost of living continues to increase, and wages are not matching that increased need. Knowing that students can eat breakfast and lunch during the school year is important for children and the whole family.

FRAC: How does the recent legislation impact school meals?

Mack: The bill that was just passed extends universal school meals for the coming school year. In Vermont, nearly all schools have been providing universal meals using the federal waivers throughout the pandemic. When the waivers expire and students return this fall, they will still have access to universal school breakfast and lunch.

FRAC: How are universal school meals being funded?

Mack: Schools are drawing down all the federal funds that they can [such as the free, reduced-price, and paid school breakfast and lunch reimbursements, and maximizing the use of community eligibility], and the state is making up the difference for the cost of each meal so that school nutrition programs get reimbursed at the free rate for all meals served. In Vermont, this comes from our education fund, which had a surplus this year. By funding school meals through our state education fund, Vermont is naming that school meals are a foundational component of the way we educate our kids. That’s a really important distinction and step in recognizing the necessity of having food in order to learn well.

FRAC: What efforts are there to make Healthy School Meals for All sustainable in Vermont?

Mack: While this bill is a one-year extension of universal school meals, it states an intent to make the program permanent. It requests data and studies to be completed for the legislature for January 2023 to determine the cost of universal school meals and to allow the legislature to consider and identify long-term funding sources. This is a big step that made sure that the legislature had time to get the necessary information to make a long-term decision, and at the same time ensure that kids don’t lose meals this fall.

FRAC: Alongside Healthy School Meals for All, what other child nutrition investments did Vermont make?

Mack: This year was really exciting. Not only did lawmakers pass the universal school meals bill, which guarantees school meals at no charge to all students for the upcoming school year, but they also fully funded the Farm to School and Early Childhood program for the first time and continued funding for the Local Food Incentive Grant Program. Taken altogether, these three pieces of legislation from the state help connect all children across Vermont to local farms and producers in the community. Kids can build a connection and a love for fresh local food and different kinds of fruits and vegetables that they might not have access to at home. At the same time, it’s supporting local farmers and giving them access to a really stable market, which has been increasingly important during the pandemic.

FRAC: What was helpful during your advocacy process to get this passed?

Mack: We built an incredible coalition. We had a wide range of voices speaking out in support of universal school meals. One of the things we do is collect supporter cards from people across Vermont where they share in one or two sentences why they care about universal school meals. We were able to collect over 1,500 supporter cards and demonstrate support in every legislative district in Vermont. Every single representative heard from at least one of their constituents, which is really powerful. We had all sorts of folks including students, teachers, school nutrition professionals, economic and social justice advocates, local food advocates, principals, and school board members speaking out about the importance of universal school meals. It was the anti-hunger community working in partnership with stakeholders across the state that got this bill passed.