When I arrived in Montpelier as a first-year legislator just over three months ago, I was assigned to the Committee on Agriculture, Food Resiliency, and Forestry. The Committee’s jurisdiction has expanded with the new biennium, and the group that had previously been tasked with overseeing topics in farming, forest products, and state parks, now also has responsibility for food resiliency and climate change mitigation and adaptation.
It’s food resiliency that we’ve spent a good deal of time grappling with over these first several months. Specifically, we’ve asked: how do we work to build more resilient food systems and food secure communities across our state? One answer became clear quickly, when H.165, the bill that would make universal school meals permanent, was introduced and sent to our committee.
For the past three years, universal school meals have been a reality in Vermont. For two years during the height of the pandemic, federal funding made that possible. For the current school year, one-time state funding was authorized by the Legislature last year.
Universal school meals help us meet the basic needs of our kids during the school day. Data shared with us by the Agency of Education indicates that the program has already led to significant increases in student participation in both breakfast and lunch, meaning that more kids are eating throughout the school day.
In addition to the obvious impact this has on hunger, higher student participation also means better statewide drawdown of federal school nutrition funding for school districts and supervisory unions. The program also improves predictability and efficiency for schools in meal planning and purchasing.
Finally, universal school meals provide for increased farm-to-school opportunities, improving school food quality, supporting our farmers, and keeping more Vermont tax dollars in the Vermont economy. We call this a win-win-win.
As we worked on the permanent universal school meals program, our committee also had lengthy discussions about how to move forward with school food programs that are incentivized and empowered to serve locally grown food. We’re working on some ideas for how to better integrate stories about where food comes from and how it’s grown into the overall educational experience and curriculum.
After weeks of testimony on this bill, from school nutritionists, administrators, teachers, parents, students, farmers, and advocates, the feedback was unanimous: universal school meals positively impact the health, behavior, nutrition, and education outcomes for Vermont’s students.
Our committee voted the bill out successfully, as did the House Ways & Means Committee, which looks at all bills impacting revenues in Vermont. It is designed to become a form of categorical aid, so that the program’s funding year after year can never become a political volleyball.
After a pass through the Appropriations Committee, it will come to the full House for a vote, and then move on through the legislative process. I’m hopeful that our state will continue to lead by providing this crucial support for our kids, our families, our schools, our farms, and our communities.