BRATTLEBORO >> Students at the three Brattleboro elementary schools — Academy School, Green Street School, and Oak Grove School — will notice a big change in the cafeteria this year. Thanks to a new Universal Free School Meals program, all school meals, including breakfast, lunch, and after-school meals, will be free for every student.

School meals have always been available for free to some students, depending on income. Parents have had to fill out an eligibility form, which is then used to determine who is eligible for free lunch and who must pay the full price for their meal — the state of Vermont decided to eliminate a third category, the reduced-price meal, several years ago.

Universal Free School Meal programs, made possible by the federal Community Eligibility Provision, do away with these categories and provide school meals to all students for free. Schools using this program have high percentages of children participating in the 3SquaresVT — also known as SNAP or food stamps — Reach Up (TANF), or other state programs. At least 56 schools in Vermont take advantage of their eligibility to offer Universal Meals, covering approximately 15 percent of all Vermont students.


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Moving to a universal meals model allows school systems to spend less time and money on administration, putting it instead into improving the quality of the food and increasing participation in the meal program. And when everyone in the school is receiving free lunch, no child is singled-out as unable to afford lunch and no families end up in debt to the meal program at the end of the year. That helps families who come close to eligibility requirements for free lunch but don't quite meet them, and also helps keep the school finances healthy.

Bringing universal meals to Brattleboro schools required a coordinated effort of the school board, administration, food service staff, and advocates from Food Connects and Hunger Free Vermont.

"This was a truly collaborative effort to bring Universal Meals to Brattleboro," said Helen Rortvedt, who coordinates Farm to School programming in Brattleboro for Food Connects. "Food Connects and Hunger Free Vermont supported Windham Southeast Supervisory Union staff and principals to weigh their options by liaising with Cafe Services and by sharing lessons from other schools around the state that have already switched."

"Over the past several years, the leadership of WSESU, and especially of the Brattleboro, Putney, and Guilford schools, have taken a series of commendable actions to ensure that hunger is never a barrier for their students' ability to learn," said Anore Horton, Nutrition Initiatives Director at Hunger Free Vermont, acknowledging the varied efforts of the Brattleboro town schools and WSESU to expand access to nutritious meals for all students. "From sponsoring the summer meals program, to adding the Afterschool Meal Program at five schools plus St. Michael School, to improving meal quality, to moving breakfast after the bell in Putney, and now adding universal meals for the Brattleboro elementary schools, Hunger Free Vermont salutes WSESU for taking the steps we know work best to protect all children from hunger and malnutrition."

"I feel proud to work for a district that is not only dedicated to ensuring that all students have access to food, but also has a true commitment to making the school food healthy," said Kira Sawyer-Hartigan, WSESU Health and Wellness Consultant. "The Brattleboro Town School Board has set aside additional funding to improve the quality of food, including banning any foods with high fructose corn syrup and mechanically separated chicken."

Additionally, Food Connects has helped the three Brattleboro elementary schools source thousands of dollars of local food each year through their food hub, Windham Farm & Food.

So far, in WSESU, only the three Brattleboro elementary schools qualify to participate in this program based on their number of directly certified students. Academy, Green Street and Oak Grove will join Readsboro Elementary School, from Windham Southwest Supervisory Union, as the only Windham County schools to offer universal meals.

Food Connects is a non-profit organization devoted to cultivating healthy food and farm connections in classrooms, cafeterias, and communities in Southern Vermont. Its programs include Farm to School, covering more than 30 schools; School Harvest Farm, a two-acre educational farm; and Windham Farm & Food, an aggregation and distribution food hub.

Allyson Wendt is the Marketing and Communications Coordinator. She can be contaced at allyson@foodconnects.org.