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Vermont Schools Need $12 Million In Relief To Deliver Lunches Through Summer

Two people wear gloves and stand over rows of salads on a table.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Putney Central School food service co-director Steve Hed and kitchen staffer Ariane Lavoie make chef salads for lunch in March. They would go on to be delivered by school buses to students kept home by Gov. Phil Scott's school closure order.

After COVID-19 closed Vermont’s schools, districts had to get creative in finding ways to continue feeding kids.

And since the pandemic, every single school district in the state has set up a delivery, or pick-up system for school meals.

But there are still a lot of questions about what will happen this summer, and if families will continue receiving free meals while school is out.The four schools in the Montpelier-Roxbury School District typically don’t run a summer food program.

Superintendent Libby Bonesteel said the district has been serving meals during the pandemic and that the public health crisis has put intense pressures on the families in her region.

This summer, they’ll try to continue serving meals at Union Elementary School through the second week of August.

Man packs school lunches in kitchen
Credit Libby Bonesteel, Courtesy
Montpelier-Roxbury Supervisory Union Food Services Director Jim Birmingham prepares food at Union Elementary School.

“Our families who pick up food have asked for it to continue, and that’s probably the most important thing,” Bonesteel said. “If our families need it, then we’re going to try to make it happen.”

The pandemic has turned Vermont’s educational system upside down, and over the past three months there have been challenges with remote learning,internet connectivity, and serving students with special needs.

More from VPR: What It's Like For One Vermont Third-Grader To Go To School, From Home

But one thing this public health crisis did show is that schools are pretty good at getting food out to families.

It’s not cheap, and it’s not easy, but there is infrastructure in place to deliver food to children and families in need.

Anore Horton is director of Hunger Free Vermont and she said the federal government this week gave the final go-ahead for school districts to continue with their emergency food distribution networks, which were developed over the past few months.

“Now it’s possible for summer meals to be delivered out to children statewide,” Horton said. “And that is really, really important because many families are facing unprecedented challenges right now, and have lost income and are not sure when they’re going to be able to go back to work, or whether there’s even a job in their sector for them anymore. There’s a lot of uncertainty.”

More from VPR: 'My Family Needs These Meals': How One Northeast Kingdom Family Is Making It Through

"Now it's possible for summer meals to be delivered out to children statewide. And that is really, really important because many families are facing unprecedented challenges right now." — Anore Horton, Hunger Free Vermont

According to the Agency of Education, most school districts in the state have seen an increase in the number of meals going out every day during the pandemic, compared to during the regular school year.

According to Horton, food security advocates are trying to come up with a plan to extend the summer meal program beyond even what happens during a typical year.

Normally, schools work with town recreation departments to find places where kids are gathering to plan distributions.

Horton said that won’t work this year.

“Normally children have to congregate at a site. And of course, that is quite the opposite of what we all need to be doing this summer,” Horton said. “We don’t want a bunch of kids congregating together.”

Trays of sandwiches
Credit Libby Bonesteel, Courtesy
The Montpelier-Roxbury School District has not run a summer food program in the past, but will serve food this summer to meet demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brattleboro Representative Mollie Burke serves on the House Transportation Committee, and said the food deliveries worked over the past few months because schools had buses, or contracts with bus services in place.

But Burke said there isn’t a school district in the state of Vermont with extra money lying around right now.

“The money for the transportation for the buses that have been delivering food all over town, you know, they didn’t have the funding to do that throughout the summer,” Burke said.

More from VPR: 'It Gets You Right In The Chest': Watching 1,900 Cars Show Up For Food

Lawmakers are trying to carve out about $12 million from the federal coronavirus package to support the summer food program.

The money will go towards transportation, labor, extra packaging schools need to deliver food and things like masks and gloves.

And districts are keeping a keen eye on what the Legislature does with the money.

According to the Agency of Education about a third of the districts that are thinking about dropping their summer meal delivery service said the programs are too expensive for them to run.

John Sayles is CEO of the Vermont Foodbank, and he says having a school meals program in place during the summer will take pressures off other parts of Vermont’s food distribution network, which has been pushed to its limits during the pandemic.

“I can’t imagine what the lines would be like at these federal food distributions if the schools weren’t there sending out thousands and thousands of breakfasts and lunches every single day,” Sayles said.

More from Vermont Edition: Hunger Relief Organizations Call For Immediate Funding To Meet Rising Food Insecurity

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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