Rep. Jim Carroll of Bennington called the universal school meals bill "a moral imperative."

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MONTPELIER — After an initial yearlong trial, the Vermont House of Representatives passed H.165, advancing a permanent universal school meals bill and sending it to the Senate for consideration.

If approved by the Senate and Gov. Phil Scott, Vermont will be one of the first states to make universal school breakfast and lunch permanent for its students, at no cost to families.

Five other states have already done so, and more than 20 others are currently considering universal school meals for students, in recognition of healthy meals as an important part of the school day.

Universal school meals have been available to all Vermont students since March of 2020, through a federally funded COVID-19 waiver program that provided free breakfast and lunch for all students nationwide.

When that program ended, Vermont enacted its own yearlong program with the intent to explore extending it permanently.

“We are so happy and grateful that our lawmakers have seen and truly understood the value of universal school meals, first and foremost for our students, their families, our business community, our food producers — truly, everyone wins,” Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, said in a news release.

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Hunger Free Vermont and other anti-hunger advocates have testified for the passage of universal school meals, in a state where two in five individuals have reported experiencing hunger or food insecurity in the past year, and where families with children are five times more likely to be hungry. Through the universal school meals program, more than 50,000 children are eating school lunch and more than 32,000 are eating school breakfast this school year — the highest participation rates ever recorded in Vermont.

Rep. Jim Carroll, D-Bennington, called universal school meals “a moral imperative.”

From the start of the 2023-24 Legislative session, enthusiasm for universal school meals was apparent — across party lines — and this strong and broad support was clear during the debate on the bill, Hunger Free Vermont said in the release. 

“Hunger is a policy choice," said Rep. Esme Cole, D-Hartford, who serves on the House Committee on Agriculture, Food Resiliency and Forestry, and is a co-sponsor of the bill. "Universal school meals is an actionable, practical strategy to address it, in addition to the ripple effect of long-term benefits it provides our students, farmers, and economy.”

Rep. Erin Brady, D-Williston, a teacher who co-sponsored H.165, spoke of universal school meals as part of the education principle of Universal Design for Learning.

“The benefits of universal school meals extend beyond financial need. When we find ways to make learning accessible to certain students with certain needs, these tools often end up helping many more than they were intended for originally,” Brady said. “These are like curb cuts on sidewalks — they may have been put in place for those with physical handicaps but they end up providing benefits to many more. Universal meals are these curb cuts — there is a ripple effect of benefits.”