Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Superintendent James Culkeen.

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BENNINGTON — A federally funded program designed to ensure no child goes hungry in Vermont — set to expire at the end of June — secured a one-year reprieve this week when Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill providing state funding to preserve the program through the 2022-23 academic year.

In addition, funding was also added for a farm-to-school program, enabling schools to purchase locally grown, healthier products to increase the nutritional value of school breakfasts and lunches.

“We are grateful that this new law will allow our students to receive free breakfast and lunch for another school year,” said Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Superintendent James Culkeen. “This state-funded extension will give our business office and our food service provider time to plan how we will feed our students in future years.”

Like other schools around the state with a high percentage of lower-income students, the SVSU district already provided free breakfast and lunches to all kids. But school staff were required to jump through bureaucratic hoops to prove that the income-based requirements to qualify for federal funds were met – which also mandated that parents complete paperwork to document their financial status.

Schools that did not qualify for free meals for all students instead provided free lunches and breakfasts only to those whose families who could prove they were income-eligible.

Anti-hunger advocates said that system created a stigma for children from low-income families, made qualification for federal assistance a paperwork challenge for school staff and families, and meant too many kids went without quality meals at school — sometimes their only meals of the day.

However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government temporarily waived the bureaucratic hurdles and provided funding for all students to eat free through June.

Vermont’s one-year extension of the program, funded through a surplus in the state education fund, guarantees all kids will continue to have high quality school meals. It also gives lawmakers and others a year to search for other ways of paying for the program over the long-term.

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Bill Anton, Windham Central Supervisory Union superintendent, said that like the SVSU district, the West River Education District already had universal meals in place prior to the pandemic and that will continue.

“The new law allows the Legislature to grapple with continued funding in the next session, while keeping the program intact for all students,” he said.

Anton estimated the West River Education District could save upwards of $100,000 to $150,000 next year, depending on the details of the law. The district includes schools in Jamaica, Newfane and Townshend.

Mark Speno, Windham Southeast Supervisory Union superintendent, said he’s in full support of universal meals.

“I’ve seen the positive effect it’s had on our kids, the ability to provide a breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack,” he said. “I’ve seen nothing but positives coming from that and the amount of participation of our kids taking in our meals program continues to increase with universal meals. The stigma of a school meal versus a home meal is not really there anymore. That’s huge. No kid should go through their day hungry.”

Speno called the new law “a really positive step forward.”

Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, said the Universal School Meals and the farm-to-school programs could not have been preserved without the active support of a broad group devoted to ending childhood hunger.

“This is a coalition of teachers, students, parents, farmers, school nutrition professionals, and community members across Vermont. We could not have gotten this far without their voices, and it is an honor to have worked alongside them to ensure that every student, in every school, gets a nutritious breakfast and lunch, at no cost to the student; because no child deserves to learn what hunger feels like in school,” Horton said in a release.


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