There’s an old adage: Never waste a good crisis.
And out of the awful crisis that was the COVID pandemic, a flicker of good emerged.
With schools closed and kids home-bound, the federal government realized that children across the country rely on school meals to avoid hunger, and stepped up to provide funding to ensure that all children – regardless of income or zip code – had access to regular food through their schools.
And throughout the time of school closings, lessons were learned.
Families stepped forward to accept the meals; they needed help keeping their children fed. Those foods tended to be healthier, often made from local ingredients. And receiving financial help with food for their children freed up money to cover other expenses, like rent, health care and more.
Although COVID isolation has thrown academics a curveball, studies prove (and teachers will tell you!) that hungry kids can’t learn. Feeding a child helps keep them focused and sharp in the classroom, and builds a stronger educational and professional foundation for that child.
The list goes on.
Thanks to school meal programs, it is entirely possible to keep children fed and healthier.
When the federal money to pay for universal meals dried up as the pandemic eased, state lawmakers stepped in to fund the $27 million program, correctly recognizing the urgency of keeping our kids fed.
They realized that the stigma of being part of an income-based program kept some kids from accepting the meals. They realized the paperwork of administering an income-based program was an obstacle for some families, and burned staff time processing those forms that could be better spent helping Vermonters in more productive ways.
Perhaps most importantly, they recognized that every kid should be able to sit side-by-side with friends of all incomes and comfortably share healthy breakfasts and lunches. Hunger and shame should not be a line that divides children.
The Vermont Legislature took an important step as the 2023 session wound to a close, creating a funding source to make that program permanent (the bill passed the House by an overwhelming 122-25 vote).
We are proud of that action.
Gov. Phil Scott has voiced concern about the change. He argues the funding comes from the Education Fund, paid by property taxpayers, and could impact lower-income taxpayers and drive up rents. And, he has said through a spokesperson, the funding helps higher-income families who don’t need the assistance.
“This approach could disproportionately impact lower income Vermonters in order to essentially provide affluent families support that they do not need,” said spokesperson Jason Maulucci.
However, many low-income advocates, nutritionists, educators and others rallied around the universal meals program, arguing it is critical to keeping all children fed.
We believe Gov. Scott should sign the legislation or let it become law without his signature.
Realistically, Vermont leaders are confronted every day with enormous challenges that they cannot overcome in our small state.
But this opportunity – potentially ending childhood hunger into the future – is doable. Taking this step on behalf of Vermont’s children is within our grasp.
It’s not only the smart thing for Vermont, but the right thing.