UVM researcher: School meal programs continue to be vital during the pandemic
School breakfast and lunch programs are an important source of nutrition for many Vermont children. More than a third of them qualified for free or reduced price meals during the last school year, according to the most recent data from the state Agency of Education.
But the pandemic has changed who is seeking out free meals and how students can access them. With the omicron variant impacting staffing and student attendance, school districts have resumed offering free grab-and-go meals to kids who are quarantining or home because of school closures.
VPR's Liam Elder Connors spoke with University of Vermont food and nutrition researcher Meredith Niles about how school districts are responding to food scarcity in the state. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Liam Elder-Connors: We've heard from schools, anecdotally at least, that more families are seeking out free meal programs than in non-pandemic years. Do we have a good idea who is using these programs, and how the pandemic has impacted food access in Vermont?
Meredith Niles: First of all, the pandemic response: transition to a universal meals program in the state. And so right now, students are receiving free meals regardless of income status. And so that universal approach really allowed for unprecedented access to school meals in new ways that we hadn't seen before.
Our data really tells us that there is a significant number of people utilizing the school meals programs that qualify as being food insecure. So the data that I pulled, which is from last year, is a survey of Vermonters that we've done over the whole first year of the pandemic. So we surveyed about 450 Vermonters three different times in the first year of the pandemic. And about 18% of those had used school meals programs since the pandemic had began.
How do the people that use these programs perceive them?
Overwhelmingly very helpful — 85% of our respondents who were utilizing school meals programs during the pandemic described them as "very helpful" for their household.
We also saw that there were some challenges early on with accessing school meals, such as meal deliveries that might not be available. But those are a minority of people experiencing some of those challenges, and those have changed over time. So really, what our data tells us is that the school meals program is incredibly helpful — not only for children, but also for the entire family. During the pandemic, we know from our other surveys that about half of Vermonters have faced some kind of job disruption. So if you have less income coming in and are finding it harder to put food on the table, the school meals program continues to be an incredible important safety net, even this far into the pandemic.
How sustainable is it for districts to continue to run these meal programs while dealing with staffing issues, and also keeping schools physically open?
It's an incredible challenge. And actually, some of this predates the pandemic. There has been a shift over time to actually take kitchens, for example, out of schools and to simplify meal delivery. And so in some cases, we actually maybe have already removed infrastructure that could be critical for ensuring that we're feeding all of the students who might qualify for free and reduced meals, or an entire school, under a universal school meals program.
So I do think there's a lot of opportunity to continue to invest in school meals programs as we think about spending pandemic funding, for example, as an investment for the future. We know that we have a strong local food system here in Vermont, and there's a lot of effort to connect local producers with schools. But we certainly need the schools to have the resources, including kitchens and utilities, in order to be able to make these programs work.