BENNINGTON — Legislation to make permanent a program ensuring all children have access to free meals at school — regardless of income — was not included in the Senate spending plan for the coming year.
But advocates for the program remain optimistic the funding and policy change will survive the final weeks of the 2023 session and be signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott.
“It’s been a good session at the Statehouse because both chambers (the House and Senate) and people of all three parties love the program and want to make it permanent,” said Teddy Waszazak, universal school meals campaign manager with Hunger Free Vermont. “We haven’t been having to convince people that feeding kids in school is a good thing.”
Free and reduced cost school meal programs historically have been tied to family income. Advocates argue that creates burdensome paperwork requirements for parents and caregivers to prove income eligibility, as well as for staff who administer the program, and have to spend time reviewing and verifying information. In addition, they say, students who receive free meals because of income thresholds too often feel stigmatized by others, and opt not to take the free food.
During the pandemic, however, the federal government temporarily waived many of the requirements linked to ensuring kids received free meals — making the program universal to all children. Vermont lawmakers approved $35 million last year to extend the program a year when the federal funds ended, but ultimately only about $29 million was needed.
The House budget for the coming year earmarks $27.5 million for free school meals. And the goal among advocates this year is to make the program permanent, not requiring approval and funding year after year.
“Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry,” Waszazak said. “It is the job of all of us to provide the kids with everything they need to be successful in their education. Any system that’s not universal, you’re going to lose kids because they’re falling through the cracks.”
As an example, he said some children’s families make just a bit too much to qualify for free meals under the previous income-based system, yet don’t earn enough to ensure their kids can afford regular meals at school. That problem has been exacerbated by economic pressures like inflation and job disruptions — at the same time federal COVID-related assistance has expired.
These kids belong to what Waszazak calls “the missing middle.”
“They can’t afford to buy school meals but have to eat,” he said.
Funding for the program and the policy changes needed to make it permanent are currently included in three separate bills, none of which has passed the Senate at this point. However, Waszazak said he’s optimistic the change will be passed in some form as lawmakers work to finish their business and end the session.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Friday he supports the program and ensuring all children have access to meals. And like Waszazak, he predicted the change will pass the Legislature and head to Scott’s desk.
However, Sears said he has questions about creating an essentially new state program without a clear funding source. He noted that after-school programing will be funded through a new cannabis fund; and funding for problem gambling assistance will be paid for through a sports wagering bill now working its way through the Legislature.
Funding for universal free school meals will likely come from the education fund and potentially affect property taxes, Sears said. And he wants assurances that school districts will be eligible for federal reimbursements under any new state-backed program.
So, while “it is something that is very popular; I totally agree with it; I think it’s a good thing,” Sears added that he plans to raise the funding questions as the Senate takes up the bills.
Scott has similar concerns.
“The governor is in favor of providing free school meals to all Vermont children and families who need the support. However, he remains concerned that the bill would increase property tax pressure, and therefore rents,” said Jason Maulucci, Scott’s press secretary. “This approach could disproportionately impact lower income Vermonters in order to essentially provide affluent families support that they do not need.
“It’s still too early to say whether or not the governor can support the bill as written, because we need to evaluate the cumulative impact of the Legislature’s many initiatives that carry high price tags,” he added.
“Whether it’s property taxes pressure, new payroll taxes, income tax hikes, DMV fee increases and more — all these initiatives add up and would place significant additional burden on already-overtaxed Vermonters, and we need to evaluate them in the aggregate.”