BARRE — Statewide, 6,500 schoolchildren in 23 schools will be able to have free breakfasts and lunches thanks to a new federal program.
Under the community eligibility provision, schools can now implement what is called universal school meals, a model that provides meals to all students at no charge, regardless of economic situation.
In an interview on Central Vermont Public Television’s “City Room” with Times Argus Editor Steven Pappas on Friday, Hunger Free Vermont Executive Director Marissa Parisi said the program will level the playing field and give students in qualifying schools access to free, nutritious — hopefully local — food. She wants all eligible Vermont schools involved.
Parisi said that one in seven households in Vermont is not able to meet its basic nutritional needs on a daily basis and that many such households have children.
“Everyone can identify with what it’s like to feel hungry, and then how you behave when you feel hungry,” said Parisi. Children who are hungry “are not able to focus, they have a harder time learning and retaining information,” and they have more behavior problems and are ill more often, she said. School staff have to be disciplinarians rather than educators when kids are hungry, and their health and futures are compromised.
To be eligible, at least 40 percent of enrolled students in a school must be certified to receive free school meals. A formula is used to determine the rate at which a school receives federal reimbursement for providing free meals to all — the higher the number of qualifying students, the more the school will be reimbursed.
By giving all students in a school access to healthy, nutritious meals, there are wins on every front, Parisi said. There are 23 Vermont schools rolling out the universal program this year — with no individual applications for aid and no more cash registers.
And no stigma for kids who used to receive free and reduced-price meals.
To help trumpet information about the program, Hunger Free Vermont has just released a four-minute animated video that explains how the program works. It can be viewed on the hungerfreevt.org website.
“Hunger Free Vermont has been talking about universal meals in Vermont for a long time and how it would transform a school if they were able to offer free meals to children,” said Parisi. “It’s the only place where children are segregated by economic status ... in the lunch line.”
Parisi said the group will show the video to school boards, principals, superintendents and “anyone who will listen.” Hunger Free Vermont will be tracking data from schools taking part in the universal school meals program to see how things are going.
Many families barely miss the income guidelines to qualify for free and reduced-price meals but are struggling to keep up, said Parisi.
“Those working parents who might not qualify now have the convenience and the comfort level that they’ll be able to drop off their kids at school and know they will eat well,” she said.
This nutrition education will also carry into the children’s homes.
“We’ve found that children are these really powerful change agents in their homes,” she said.
Vermont schools that qualify for the program have until Aug. 31 to notify the Agency of Education if they are going to utilize the eligibility provision, said Alida Duncan, spokeswoman for Hunger Free Vermont.
Anore Horton, child nutrition advocacy manager at Hunger Free Vermont, said Friday, “This formula means that whether it ends up costing less or more or the same varies dramatically from school to school. Each school is really a unique case. And of course, it depends on how much a town is already subsidizing their school meal program. The town might be able to provide universal school meals but would have to commit to continuing to subsidize a school meal program that is running a deficit anyway. This is definitely what some schools and supervisory unions have decided to do.”
According to Hunger Free Vermont, schools in Barre and Rutland are taking part in the program. As many as 50 public Vermont schools are eligible.
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