On June 19, 2024
Opinions

Universal School Meals: Delivering for Vermont children, families and schools

By Teddy Waszazak

Editor’s note: Teddy Waszazak is a resident of Barre and the Legislative Policy Lead at Hunger Free Vermont, a statewide advocacy and education nonprofit working to end hunger in Vermont.

As another school year comes to a close, all of us in Vermont have two exciting milestones to celebrate: the start of summer and one year of permanent Universal School Meals! As students, family, school staff, and our greater communities turn their attention to swimming holes, family BBQs, and summer camps, I wanted to focus some attention on a major success of the public school system in Vermont. 

The State of Vermont participated in a temporary Universal School Meals program from 2020-2023, and with the passage of Act 64 in 2023, the Legislature voted to make the program permanent. This month we celebrate one year of Act 64 and Universal School Meals, and one year of no child having to experience hunger in Vermont’s public schools. 

The success of Universal School Meals in its first permanent year took many forms and opened additional doors for schools and children across the state. Participation in school lunch and breakfast has risen dramatically – with 9,700 more students eating breakfast and 7,800 more students eating school lunch each school day compared to when meals were charged to students. That’s roughly a 40% increase in school breakfast participation! 

In addition, Universal School Meals (combined with program improvements made available by USDA and wisely adopted by Vermont’s Agency of Education) has more than doubled the number of schools eligible to host summer and afterschool meal programs. 9,000 more students have been accurately counted as low-income, bringing increased federal funding to school districts. On top of that, due to more accurately counting these students this year, over 200 Vermont schools are eligible to participate in summer meal programs, and the overwhelming majority of Vermont towns are able to host free and universal summer meal sites.

By the numbers, Vermont ranks second in the country in school lunch participation increases, ranks fourth in the country in school breakfast participation increases, and Vermont is the only  state with a permanent Universal School Meals program that has come in under budget. No matter how you look at it, Universal School Meals is a huge success for our state — a shining example of what happens when we invest in our children, our families, and our schools.

I was a kid who grew up falling through the cracks of the old system. I didn’t have a reliable parent around to sign the forms, I was housing insecure, and on many occasions at school, I simply wouldn’t eat. I certainly didn’t have the money to pay for the meals myself at age 16. I’d often experience light-headedness, anxiety, or extreme fatigue, all because some paperwork didn’t get filled out.

Before Universal School Meals, 9,000 students like me were not accurately counted as low-income and were not getting the free school meals they needed. Tens of thousands of families were burdened with intrusive applications. Now, because of permanent Universal School Meals, this reality has been replaced by full bellies, well-performing students, and increased federal dollars in Vermont. It’s a win across the board: our students, teachers, parents, school nutrition professionals, farms, and communities are all better for it.

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