BRATTLEBORO — A scheduled 10 minute conversation regarding free and reduced lunch took up about 40 minutes at the Hunger Council meeting on Jan. 20.
The discussion around free and reduced lunch programs for middle school and high school students began when Food Connects director, Richard Berkfield, introduced the organization's latest marketing campaign, "Powered by VT School Food." The goal of this operation is to encourage school meal participation for students of all incomes without alienating lower income students through messages and images. Berkfield presented statistics regarding those who are eligible for free and reduced lunch, yet do not participate. These numbers brought about what prevents students from consuming a free meal and what can be done about it.
"Bellows Falls Middle School has a very high number of 78 percent, but that still means there's quite a few students who are not getting a free meal," said Berkfield. "But then on the lower end at the Bellows Falls High School we have just about 55 percent of students who are getting a free meal, so those are basically federal dollars that are on the table that are being left."
Food Connects is an independent organization based in Brattleboro that oversees three main programs: Farm to School, Farm to Community and Farm to Institution. The organization's data showed that there are 22 to 45 percent of students who are eligible for a free lunch, but are not getting one. The numbers came from students at Bellows Falls Middle School, Bellows Falls Union High School, Brattleboro Area Middle School, Brattleboro Union High School, Twin Valley Middle School and High School, Leland and Gray Union High School, and Green Mountain Union High School.
Berkfield suggested that perhaps a survey could go out to students or families to find out why they are not engaging in this program, while others at last Wednesday's meeting offered their own interpretations.
"For every school, we should look at the geography of it, what's near by and what are the other competitive food places," said Katherine Jandernoa from Food Connects.
Jandernoa suggested looking into this further piece of research because others at the meeting noted that some students access food from locations other than the school cafeteria.
Some noted other possible barriers to engaging in the free and reduced program food options and others contributed their hunches.
"At the school my son goes to, the buses are frequently late, so he only has five minutes to get into the classroom and he doesn't get to eat his breakfast," an attendee said at Wednesday's meeting. "Then he says there is quite the level of grossness in what they are serving for lunch, so I question what they are serving. And then there is also the stigma that comes with getting a free and reduced lunch."
This idea of grossness was discussed at the meeting for an extended period of time. Some parents mentioned that they have heard the word coined by their children or others. However, Anore Horton of Hunger Free Vermont concluded that "gross" can mean a lot of things to kids.
"Given the dramatic increase of documented increase of quality of food in most schools in this region over the past years and the work that has been done to make that possible, gross does not necessarily have anything to do with the quality of the food that we might experience," said Horton. "Gross means a lot of things, not necessarily having anything to do with the taste of the food, but definitely the unfamiliarity of things, the misunderstanding of what you have to take and I think the whole context of which the food is served, so it's all very complicated."
The discussion continued as some attendees expressed what they saw as flaws in the system, in trying to avoid an obvious difference between those who are on the free and reduced program and those who are not. Sandy Vincent from the Chester-Andover Family Center showed her discontentment in that students on the free and reduced program are required to take a certain amount of food, while paying students can pick and choose their items individually.
"That's nuts, " said Vincent. "Now I know why they don't eat lunch."
While some critiqued the system, other such as Sue Graff from United Way of Windham County said the cafeteria can be a "horrifying" place socially.
"The food could be anything, you could be serving filet mignon and the kid isn't going to engage with the food because of the environment." said Graff.
While many factors were noted, some repeated, Pat Donnelly of Groundworks Collaborative, expressed that perhaps further time should be spent between child psychologists and those who spearhead the free and reduced program.
"I just remember from my teenage days, there is the psychology of teenagers and body image and food," said Donnelly. "I just know from some of the friends I had who either survived bulimia or anorexia, that telling someone like that 'you must have that food,' is pretty much the exact wrong way you should go about that."
Many barriers were discussed about reducing the stigma around free and reduced lunch and in increasing participation for students who are eligible and signed up for the program. Berkfield left the meeting with a list of suggestions and figured his time would best be spent by revisiting the mentioned concerns before going forward with the campaign.
Other topics of interest at Wednesday's meeting centered around transportation in Windham County, specifically services that help individuals arrive at a local food shelf or even a doctor's appointment. The overall conclusion agreed upon at the meeting was that information regarding transportation needs to be simplified. Some attendees suggested clarifying that the "2-1-1" hotline number as an appropriate place to direct individuals who are seeking transportation and other social services.
In other updates at the meeting, Emilie Kornheiser, who is the community development specialist at State of Vermont, a Promise Communities coach, a volunteer coordinator at Groundworks and a board member at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, announced one of her new projects. Kornheiser said she would like to create a "Feeding our Communities Cookbook," which would include recipes from some of the Groundworks Collaborative staff along with other recipes from the community that can be made for larger groups on a budget. At the meeting attendees proposed that the meals in the book would be suitable for about 30 individuals, which some felt was a good representation of the number of people who show up for free cooked meals.
In other business at the meeting, Graff discussed where the Summer Meals program will be focusing its attention and listed the following focal points:
• Develop open meal sites.
• Focus on increase camp participation.
• Increase number of open sites; be aware of demographics, which sites are robust.
• Increase participation in general.
• Develop local ambassadors adults and youth to help with outreach.
• Develop out of school and weekends participation.
• Develop/build relationships with institutionalized programs.
Graff also noted a service that is being offered through United Way of Windham County – free tax preparation services. The organization is offering two program that provide free federal and state income-tax preparation services to eligible taxpayers. One of the services is Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) for those with a household income at or below $54,000. Another program, MyFreeTaxes, provides a similar service for those with a household income at or below $62,000. Appointments can be made at 1-866-652-4636.
The next Hunger Council meeting will be held in March.