State boosts free school mealsToby Talbot / AP Photo
Students eat lunch at Barre Town Elementary School on Tuesday. A press conference was held at the school to announce the state is expanding a program that works to ensure all students have enough to eat.
BARRE TOWN — Thousands of Vermont students are returning to classrooms this week newly eligible for free breakfast and lunch at school after an expansion of the program during the last legislative session.
Gov. Peter Shumlin and Education Secretary Armando Vilaseca joined with anti-hunger advocates and school officials Tuesday at Barre Town Elementary School to highlight the expanded program.
The program, an expansion of a free-breakfast program launched in 2008, now allows students previously eligible for reduced-price meals to receive free breakfast and lunch.
“Vermont is the first state in the nation that has made students who are eligible for free or subsidized meals to be able to have free lunches and free breakfasts and not have to subsidize some portion of that meal,” Shumlin said.
“We all know that you can’t learn if you’re hungry,” he added, “and this simple, thoughtful subsidy for the state of Vermont ensures that no child in Vermont goes to school hungry, or if they arrive at school hungry, stays hungry while they’re expected to learn.”
Students whose parents earn more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, about $30,620, were previously ineligible for free meals at school but could receive a reduced-price meal. The legislation signed into law earlier this year by Shumlin will now provide about 37,000 students with free meals, including about 6,000 newly eligible students.
Shumlin said the state expects to spend about $400,000 this year from the general fund on the meal program. Vermont’s congressional delegation helped secure a match from the federal government that will equal the amount spent by the state, he said.
The program is part of an effort to close an achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers, according to officials.
“No student should be embarrassed about the fact that food is expensive and that their parents don’t necessarily have the means to ensure that they have the money in their pocket to help pay for a meal at school,” Shumlin said. “We’ve solved that problem in Vermont and I hope other governors will follow us.”
Marissa Parisi, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, said her nonprofit group has worked with state officials to end hunger in Vermont schools. The organization strongly supported expanding the free meal program to help low-income students focus on learning and allow local communities to spend more on locally grown and produced food, she said.
“This legislation, we believe, is going to make it possible for about 6,000 more children to eat lunch for free at school,” she said. “What that will also do is bring more federal money into schools by participating in the program, which will mean more money to buy locally.”
State officials and advocates have also worked to end the “stigma” of receiving free meals at school. Parisi said the federal government now requires that all students receiving assistance remain anonymous.
Many schools are transitioning to a keypad system with personal identification numbers, tracking meals for all students, whether paid or free. That allows for meals to be tracked but removes all cash transactions from school cafeterias, Parisi said.
Vilaseca said Shumlin and lawmakers were both receptive to expanding the meal program when he presented the plan.
“When I brought this idea to the governor he was very, very supportive of it, and with his support our legislators felt that this was a small gesture that we could do that could really make a big difference,” he said.
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