There is no justifiable reason for any child in Vermont to go hungry.
Unlike problems we have struggled for generations to control, reduce or alleviate — such as homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, poverty, and more — ensuring every child has food is a challenge that we as a state can meet.
First, we know how to reach children: at school. That offers an easy way to provide nutritious breakfasts and lunches during the week; some schools and community organizations also take the extra step of distributing bags of food for children to take home on Fridays, ensuring they eat over the weekend.
Second, providing meals to all children — not just low-income kids — removes any stigma from the acceptance of free food. It also eliminates the bureaucratic roadblocks tied to government programs that prevent many families in need of accessing meals for their children.
No child has to ask their parents to apply for free meals; No parent has to fill out paperwork or prove income levels, which can be time-consuming and challenging. [And no taxpayer-funded state office has to waste time and money reviewing that paperwork, tracking down families for clarifications, etc.]
Third, free meals for all guarantees that every child receives quality, nutritious food for breakfast and lunch. These meals are designed to provide the nutrition and calories needed to keep children physically healthy, mentally alert and ready to learn. That level of quality food is harder for lower-income families to afford.
These aren’t old school cafeteria meals, by the way. These are new school prepared meals, often with local sources, such as in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union and at The Dorset School. In these communities, local farmers have partnered with schools to improve food quality and provide a steady, reliable customer base for farms. That’s a win-win.
Vermont has been a leader in recent years in expanding the universal meal program in schools around the state. In an ironic twist, the deadly COVID-19 pandemic led to temporary federal funding and waivers that enabled the state to expand the program statewide.
But that funding ends on June 30.
Fortunately, state lawmakers — with the support of Hunger Free Vermont and the signature of Gov. Phil Scott — tapped $29 million from a surplus in the education fund to extend the universal meals program for one year. During that time, they will look for longer-term ways to keep the program alive into the future.
This is a challenge they must meet. This program must be permanent. Every dollar spent ensuring children are healthy and ready to learn will pay dividends down the road — supporting brighter futures with less reliance on taxpayer-funded social services. Knowing that tough and trauma-filled beginnings in childhood, such as chronic hunger, translate directly to billions in costs annually to the nation.
That’s the first obligation we have to kids. The second is to make sure this program is extended through the summertime, when children are not in school to receive two meals a day and therefore significantly more likely to go hungry.
Meals are offered at summer camps, libraries, playgrounds and other places children gather in the summer. For some kids, these will be their only meals of the day. Keeping these efforts funded is also urgent.
Universal school meals cannot be a temporary focus. A sustainable funding source must be found and approved to ensure universal meals are permanent.
Some have expressed concern about committing funding for this program, citing the list of other projects requiring state dollars. But it’s hard to imagine a need more important than feeding kids.
Feeding our children cannot be a focus only when temporary funding is available. It’s a moral commitment that speaks to who we are as Vermonters. Food insecurity like this robs children of future educational opportunities, and their physical and mental health earnings in adulthood. If we truly care about all our children, then investments must be made to help them thrive in the future. That benefits us all.
Hunger Free Vermont states, “As we look ahead to recovering from the pandemic, our goal cannot be to return to where we were; we must do better.”
Keeping our kids fed is not an option; it’s an imperative.