Tuesday November 13, 2012

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Hunger Free Vermont hopes the upcoming legislative session will bring better results to a bill that would expand free school lunch to all low-income children in the state.

40 cents

H.234, which asks the state to pick up the 40 cents children who qualify for reduced lunch prices are asked to pay, was introduced in the House Education Committee in 2011 by Chairman Joey Donovan and 13 others.

The bill failed to make it out of committee last session, but Hunger Free Vermont is continuing to advocate for the bill and drum up support around the state as the 2013 legislative session draws near.

Children from households that make less than 130 percent of the poverty level receive school lunch paid by the federal government. Children from families whose income is from 130 to185 percent of the poverty level ($28,666 to $40,793 for a family of four), qualify for a reduced lunch price of 40 cents. Comparatively, lunches in Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union range in price from $1.85 at the elementary schools to $2.10 at the middle and high school.

The reduced lunch rate makes meals more manageable for families of low income, but Marissa Parisi, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, said many families who qualify for reduced price lunches still struggle to find the money.

"Often those kids come from a family were it is very hard to put together that 40 cents for that meal," Parisi said. "They might not be getting enough at home and they can’t afford that 40 cents, so what happens is they don’t eat at all."

Statewide statistics from 2011 show 65 percent of children who qualified for reduced lunch participated. The participation rate of children who qualified for free lunches was 74 percent.

With the proposed legislation, the state would pick up the 40 cents for children on reduced lunch -- which in 2011 was 6,221 children according to Hunger Free Vermont. The organization estimates the impact would make participation rates increase to the same percent as children who receive free lunch, which would cost the state $322,000 per year.

Parisi believes the cost would actually be less in the long run because money spent in order for children to receive nutritious, daily meals will likely save money that would be needed for health care later in life.

Parisi said the bill would also help school meal programs by serving more meals. Including both the state payments and federal reimbursements from the additional meals that would be served each year school lunch programs around the state would be projected to receive an additional $564,000.

Locally, the impact of the bill may not be as great as statewide, according to Maureen O’Neil, director of SVSU’s food service provider, The Abbey Group. While the local schools have a higher poverty rate than the state average, 85 percent of the 182 children in the supervisory union who qualify for reduced price lunches took advantage of the meal program last month. But if a change in law helped any more children receive a healthy meal, O’Neil said it would help.

"I want kids to eat, so whatever can help kids eat I support it ... but in our area we don’t seem to fall into the state statistics," O’Neil said.

Donna Cauley, Principal of Monument Elementary, said at a school board meeting last week there are children in Bennington’s elementary schools who qualify for reduced lunch but cannot afford it. In those cases the schools and The Abbey Group work out payment plans so that children do not go hungry.

Among the groups Hunger Free Vermont has recently taken the bill to for support was the Vermont School Boards Association at their recent annual meeting last month. Executive Director Stephen Dale said the group unanimously got behind the bill.

"The rationale is too few kids are taking advantage of the reduced lunch program because it still requires the family to put forward a certain amount of money," Dale said. "Their research has shown if lunches are fully paid for for that group of kids, they are far more likely to get a healthy noontime meal."

Ken Swierad, a board member for the Vermont School Boards Association who also sits on the Bennington and Mount Anthony Union school boards, brought the bill to the attention of the local boards recently. The idea was widely supported by those local school boards and administrators.

With similar support from schools, statewide organizations and more and more legislators, Parisi said Hunger Free Vermont is hopeful the bill will gain momentum when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

"We are really optimistic. We have been talking to legislators and there does seem to be quite a lot of energy around it now," she said.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi