BURLINGTON — A report commissioned by Hunger Free Vermont shows that universal meals in schools significantly improves outcomes for student health and academic achievement.

The two-year study by researchers at the University of Vermont Department of Education noted that federally funded meal programs were operating at 57 schools throughout Vermont (18.5 percent of 308 schools statewide in 2017).

Hunger Free Vermont hopes to expand free or subsidized meal programs to many other Vermont schools for all students to combat the stigma for children from low-income families receiving free meals.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture funds two meal programs for students.

Provision 2 is a long-standing program available to any school providing breakfast, lunch, or both, at no charge. Reimbursement is based on meal participation rates at the time the school enrolls in the program.

A new Community Eligible Provision provides breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge. Reimbursement is based on the percentage of categorically eligible students (children in households receiving 3SquaresVT food stamps or Reach Up; foster, homeless and migrant children; and children in Head Start).

Participating in CEP automatically makes schools eligible for after-school and summer meal programs, although they are separate federal child nutrition programs. At least 40 percent of students attending a school or group of schools must be directly certified for the school(s) to be eligible for the CEP program.

In central Vermont, schools participating in universal meal programs include Barre City Elementary and Middle School; Choice Academy in Barre; Waits River Valley Union School; Cabot School; Twinfield Union School; Johnson Elementary School; and Laraway School in Johnson.

In the Rutland school district, participating schools include Northeast Primary School, Northwest Elementary School and Rutland Intermediate and Middle School.

“Fifteen percent of Vermont children live in a household that is food insecure, meaning that children in these homes experience hunger or reduced food consumption due to lack of family resources,” the report said. “School meals for children from low-income backgrounds provide an avenue to combat the impact of poverty and food insecurity on child development.

“Within the federal school meal program, students with families living within 130 to 185 percent of the federal poverty rate qualify for reduced-price meals, and those living at or below 130 percent of the poverty rate qualify for free meals,” the report added.

Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, said the report’s findings show the positive benefits of universal school meal programs.

“They’re good for kids’ health and learning,” Horton said. “Well-fed children perform better at school. Improved nutrition means fewer sick days and better behavior and school meals are a place to develop healthy eating habits.”

Horton said the meal programs were also good for the economy.

“Healthier children become healthier adults,” Horton said. “Healthy, well-fed children translate into lower health care costs and improved performance in our knowledge economy.”

Horton also said the meal programs helped make schools a more welcoming place.

“Universal meals mean no child is labeled ‘low-income’ and reduced stigma leads to wider participation,” she added.

The study showed that 83 percent of staff at Vermont schools with universal meal programs said the meals make students better-prepared to learn, and 98 percent said they reduce financial stress on students and families. Sixty-four of staff said the programs allowed the schools to buy more locally grown food which helped support local economies.

Also, 62 percent of school nurses in schools with the meal programs said they needed to give less food to students outside of meal times and 52 percent said that students stress levels declined because of the programs.

The report will be presented at Hunger Free Vermont district meetings, including a meeting of the Washington County district at Downstreet Housing and Development in Barre on Thursday, at 2 p.m.

HFV has also launched a campaign to challenge a proposed Department of Homeland Security change to the definition of a “public charge” in the United States, someone who is likely to to become primarily dependent in government benefits for their basic needs.

Under the current definition, only participation in cash benefits, such as Reach Up and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families can deem someone a public charge.

The proposed rule change would include recipients of 3SquaresVT, Medicaid and Section 8 housing vouchers.

HFV is concerned that the rule change could seriously impeded and discourage efforts by legal immigrants to qualify for citizenship if the definition of a public charge is expanded.

HFV has called for people to protest the rule change by submitting comments before a Dec. 10 deadline.

To submit a commit against the rule change, visit www.hungerfreevt.org/publiccharge.

stephen.mills

@timesargus.com

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