During the pandemic, Vermont has ensured every child has access to free meals daily
As a result of Covid-19 and waivers granted at the federal level, for the first time ever, all Vermont schools are currently providing universal school meals to their students and will through the end of the 2020/21 school year. Universal meals are a long sought after goal of the organizations who make up the state’s Farm to School network.
October was National Farm-to-School month and here in Vermont the commitment is stronger than ever to move the state to a permanent universal school meals platform incorporating the farm-to-school model of healthy meals made with local ingredients.
The theme this year is “It takes a community to feed a community.”
“Our school nutrition professionals have been working non-stop since March,” said Secretary of Education Dan French. “I am incredibly grateful for their efforts to ensure that all Vermont children have access to nutritious food both at school and at home.”
Vermont’s Agency of Education has ensured ongoing meal service through June 2021 so that all kids have access to nutritious meals whether they are remote learners or in a school building. These meals are available to all children age 18 and under regardless of their income or enrollment in school.
The farm-to-school movement builds a local food and farm culture that nourishes children’s health, cultivates viable farms and builds vibrant communities. By providing meals to every student, principals can be talking to families about their student’s success, not their lunch debt, creating a more equitable and inclusive school culture.
“We are committed to the vision of ensuring Universal School Meals statewide long after we move through the current Covid-19 crisis,” stated Betsy Rosenbluth, Vermont FEED project director. “Well nourished students have fewer sick days, are able to focus in class and are more likely to develop healthy eating habits for benefits that last a lifetime. A UVM study also showed that many schools who moved to universal meals have been able to purchase more local food.”
In Vermont 88% of schools have at least some farm-to-school integration and 87% purchase at least some local food from a Vermont producer.
As noted by Stephen Park of Full Belly Farm during testimony in the State House at Farm to School Awareness Day, “We sell to schools in Chittenden and Addison counties. The income we make from selling to schools is an integral part of our business. It helps us extend our season.”
Vermont’s state and federal legislators have a long-standing reputation for championing these initiatives and helping to secure funding, support and infrastructure that make the programs a reality. As the former chairman and longest-serving member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, Senator Patrick Leahy has long been a leader of farm-to-school initiatives by securing funding as well as introducing critical legislation that created the federal Farm to School grants program. Senator Leahy is the lead sponsor of the Farm to School Act of 2019, a bipartisan bill that will increase funding for and expand the scope of the farm-to-school program.
“We see how children who eat fresh, nutritious food learn better and live healthier lives. We also see how our farmers thrive when they have access to local markets. It’s a smart investment that yields broad returns from healthier students to resilient farms, to stronger communities in Vermont and across the country,” noted Sen. Leahy, “As stronger partnerships between schools and farms continue to form, I will continue to advocate for investment in farm-to-school. I’m proud of how our state has led with a commitment to ensure every child has access to healthy, local food.”
Vermont has been a leader in the farm-to-school movement, which over the past decade, has grown significantly across the United States, reaching millions of students in all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and U.S. territories.
Last year Sen. Bernie Sanders, with Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) introduced the Universal School Meals Program Act to provide free breakfast, lunch, and supper to every student in the nation.
“In the richest country in the history of the world, it is simply outrageous that one in five children will go hungry this year,” said Sen. Sanders. “We must enact Universal Meals to ensure that every child gets the nutrition they need to thrive, and no student has to worry about whether or not they can afford a meal when they go to school. I will also continue to support valuable farm to school programs that teach youth about healthy foods while supporting our local farmers.”