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Gov. Scott allows universal free school meals to become law

Broccoli, tomato sauce and a partially eaten plum sit on a beige lunch tray.
Patti Daniels
A school lunch tray photographed in 2015.

Gov. Phil Scott has allowed a bill to become law that provides free school meals to all students regardless of their family income.

Scott opposed the bill because he said it's wrong to raise taxes to purchase meals for wealthy families.

But in a letter to lawmakers, Scott said it was clear that lawmakers would override a veto.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the federal government eliminated all eligibility requirements for the school meals program.

When the federal money ended last year, the Legislature continued it for one year using state funds, and now lawmakers proposed to keep it going at a cost of roughly $30 million a year.

Universal school meals have increased participation in school meals, said Laura La Vacca, director of food services for the Burlington School District, in an April interview onVermont Edition. In Burlington, the schools serve 80% to 90% of students both breakfast and lunch.

"I think there's no anxiety or question or worry about whether or not they're going to have meals at school," La Vacca said. "If they miss a meal at home, they know at least when they come to school tomorrow they're going to have breakfast and lunch, and in many cases, supper and snack available to them."

Rep. Erin Brady, lead sponsor of this year's bill and a high school teacher, said opening up access to school meals to everyone helps reduce any stigma associated with those meals.

"We don't charge different rates for if you could have afforded your own laptop, we don't charge different rates for if your bus route is longer," Brady said onVermont Edition. "So any ways that we can really help students just see themselves in community and not comparing with others, is really important, particularly for adolescents."

The cost of the program would amount to about a 3-cent increase on the homestead property tax rate and the nonhomestead property tax rate, according to the Legislature's nonpartisan fiscal analysts.

In his letter, Scott called on lawmakers to reconsider this issue next year.

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Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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