By Olivia Q. Pintair/VTDigger
Vermont youths age 18 and under will have access to free food again this summer through the Summer Food Service Program, a federally funded, state-administered program that began in 1968 and served hundreds of thousands of meals throughout the state last summer.
The Vermont Agency of Education, which announced the continuation of the program on Wednesday, said meals will be accessible to anyone under age 18, regardless of income. Certain sites will prioritize foster children and children who are members of households that receive 3SquaresVT, Reach Up benefits, or meet the Summer Food Service Program’s income eligibility standards.
In addition, people over age 18 who have a documented disability will be eligible to receive meals through the program, officials said.
The education agency’s announcement arrived at the end of a legislative session particularly focused on food access.
Funding for pandemic-era programs such as extra EBT SNAP benefits and Everyone Eats have dried up, leaving many Vermonters reeling beneath the weight of compounding economic crises. In response, many Vermonters have organized responses to food insecurity, with some advocating for legislation to guarantee meals for Vermont students while others organize grassroots, non-market systems for distributing free food.
Announced on the same day that legislation mandating free school meals became law in Vermont, without Gov. Phil Scott’s signature, the continuing Summer Food Service Program, is meant to make nutrition more accessible for youth and families. Last summer, it served 780,044 meals at over 276 sites across Vermont.
The summer program “increases equity and access around the state, making sure that all children can have a summer where they can relax, play, and be kids,” said Lindsey Hedges, a policy communication specialist with the Vermont Agency of Education. “Child nutrition is also critical to how a student performs in the classroom. … When students are nourished, the likelihood of summer learning loss decreases.”
Meals offered by the program will continue to be served at sites around Vermont this year, including schools, parks, housing complexes and libraries. The locations can be found on an interactive map called the USDA Meals For Kids Site Finder (fns.usda.gov/meals4kids) which will be updated with new sites weekly.
Families can also find information about open meal sites by calling 2-1-1, the United Way-run resource hotline, or through Hunger Free Vermont, which catalogs open sites by county online.
According to the Agency of Education, the summer meals are served at three types of sites — “open sites,” which are listed on the interactive map and are accessible to anyone 18 and under, and “closed-enrolled” and “summer camp sites,” which cater to specific populations. Both open and closed-enrolled sites can offer up to two meals or snacks per day, while camp sites are able to provide three meals or snacks daily, according to a press release.
“Access to nutritious foods is critical for child development, both during the school year and the summer months,” said Heather Bouchey, the state’s interim secretary of education, in a press release. “This is a fantastic program, and we want to make sure every community is aware of and has access to this resource.”