BARRE TOWN -- State schools are expanding a program that works to ensure all students have enough to eat by providing free breakfasts and lunches to those who had been eligible only for reduced-priced meals.
The Legislature is paying the $400,000 cost of offering free meals out of a belief it will attract more families to the program, officials said.
"We all know you can’t learn if you’re hungry," Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin said Tuesday outside the lunch room at the Barre Town Elementary School. "This simple, thoughtful subsidy from the state of Vermont ensures that no child in Vermont goes to school hungry or, if they arrive at school hungry, stays hungry while they’re expected to learn."
Shumlin said one of the biggest challenges of education is ensuring that children from poor families move on to post-high school education.
"Vermont’s biggest challenge, with one of the best education systems in the country that we should be proud of, is the fact that we’re not getting enough low-income kids beyond high school," Shumlin said. "And if you don’t get beyond high school in this workforce, you’re pretty much destined to a low-wage job."
Advocates expect the new law, taking effect with the just-beginning school year, will expand the number of students in the lunch program by about 5,600 who aren’t currently using it.
Vermont Education Secretary Armanda Vilaseca said it’s expected there will be close to 80,000 students enrolled in the state’s public schools this year. Up to 37,000 students are eligible for meal subsidies.
Shumlin said that officials expect about 31,000 would take advantage of the program and have free breakfasts and lunches.
In some cases families can’t afford even the reduced-priced lunches, but others are embarrassed to apply for the program, Shumlin and other officials said.
The challenge, Shumlin said, is to make sure those who are eligible for the program take advantage of it.
"We believe that by offering a free meal that’s going to help solve that problem," he said.