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UVM nutrition expert on likely extension of universal school meals program

School lunch
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Vermont lawmakers approved legislation extending a federal universal school meals program for one year using a surplus in the state education fund.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, all students across the country have had access to free breakfast and lunch through a federal universal school meals program. But that money dries up in June.

Last week, Gov. Phil Scott said he would sign legislation extending the program in Vermont — but he’s concerned how the state will fund it moving forward.

State lawmakers extended the program as a one-year pilot project funded by a $29 million surplus in the education fund. The bill also authorizes a study to consider long-term funding sources.

To talk about the importance of the universal school meals program in Vermont and the potential benefits of funding it permanently, VPR’s Grace Benninghoff spoke with Farryl Bertmann, a senior lecturer and director of the University of Vermont’s graduate program on dietetics. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Grace Benninghoff: To start, why is it significant that lawmakers extended the universal school mealspProgram? And how do these programs impact students' health and academic performance?

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Courtesy
Farryl Bertmann

Farryl Bertmann: It's very significant for a number of reasons. We've been looking at barriers to use and there is stigma, there's paperwork, there's concerns about documentation. So by creating universal school meals in Vermont, and hopefully broader, that will address these barriers, the stigma, any concern from the family about submitting these types of documents.

And from the health side, this means that people can come to school, ready to learn, have access to breakfast, have access to lunch — and not have to have those hard conversations with their parents about either completing the paperwork, or filling their account with money.

So that's why lawmakers pushed for a universal meals program where every student gets at least one hot meal, instead of these other models you're talking about where proof of income is required or other paperwork?

Yeah, and there are some other additional benefits. It means that it reduces the time that people are getting ready in the morning. So families can focus on getting ready for school, getting homework in place and not have to spend as much time thinking about breakfast and lunch.

It also means that when kids come to school, if everybody is utilizing a universal school meal, the foods that people are consuming have some similarities. And there's recent research that suggests that when students are sending food from home, contrary to what some of your listeners might think, they're higher levels of food that are just more energy dense and not nutrient dense. And so it allows students to have access to a variety of foods in a way that everybody is getting access to the same types of foods.

What kind of need does Vermont have for a meals Program? Can you contextualize how many students in the state rely on these services?

Our team has been looking at food insecurity during the pandemic, and we found that people needing food assistance programs within the state of Vermont increased significantly from 25% to 46% of our respondents. And so although I don't have a specific number for folks that could potentially qualify for these programs, we are seeing that almost half of Vermonters would benefit from utilizing a food assistance program due to food insecurity.

The school year is wrapping up for many students. But as you said, there's still really high need for this program. How does that work in the summer?

I'm always delighted when I have an opportunity to talk to people about the summer feeding programs and the summer meal programs. Often folks don't connect the two programs, but they are connected — they are all under the umbrella.

And what we find with the summer meal programs is that we're able to bring students into spaces where they can have joyful movement interaction with other kids, libraries, in some states there are pools — and these places where they can have that sort of social connection with other people during the summer, this experiential learning, acces to books and engagement and also get these meals. And so it's this wonderful reciprocal situation where you're getting that social connection and that space, but you're also getting access to a variety of foods.

What challenges come with figuring out the long-term funding piece now that we can't rely on federal funding, like we did earlier in the pandemic?

Speaking with with other members of the community, like Hunger Free Vermont, about what is this cost and how do we reconcile this cost, I just want to remind your listeners that we have been under a waiver, presently, that allows for access to universal school meals. This means that we've been able to eliminate the paper component and the bureaucracy tracking down families who have a balance on their account — all of those components. So when we're thinking about what are our cost savings and what is our cost investment, going back to the way that school meals were distributed pre-pandemic will have associated costs — making sure that all Vermont children that qualify that are in either a public school, or in an independent school that is providing that public tuition.

All of these kids are going to have access to a variety of foods. So we're setting kids up in that investment in preventive health and nutrition education and access to macronutrients and micronutrients that they need to thrive. So rather than from my perspective, as a dietician, focusing too much on what it will cost when this this pilot is done, I'm focusing on what would be the cost if we don't do this type of program.

Vermont is in a very wonderful and unique opportunity to pilot this program and become sort of the gold standard for the framework for a federal universal school meals program. There have been efforts at the federal level to move universal school meals forward. If Vermont is able to successfully move this legislation into law, and pilot this program, we really could be the leader in this space and a framework that other states can look to for a similar type of program. I think that speaks to who we are as a state. We are very socially connected. We're very conscientious of our communities and our children and access. We have been a gold standard for food security during the pandemic. And it will just continue to speak to what we this this brave little state can do to inform future programs across the nation.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with Grace Benninghoff @gbenninghoff1.

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