Critics blast proposed cuts to school meal programs

Vermont Education Commissioner Daniel French

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BRATTLEBORO — State and local officials and child advocates are pushing back against a proposed federal rule change that would reduce the number of families eligible for food stamps, thereby knocking roughly 3,233 low-income Vermont children out of free and reduced-cost school meal programs.

That loss will be felt by individual families across the state struggling to make ends meet and keep food on the table, but the impact could be broader and felt in schools across the state, they said. Federal funding for school meal programs is based on qualified participation rates, so removing even a few children from free meals programs in small schools could put those programs in jeopardy.

"Many Vermont communities are small and rural and experience high rates of poverty and food insecurity," Vermont Education Commissioner Daniel French wrote in a letter of opposition to the proposed changes. The public comment period on the proposed change ended Nov. 1.

"This proposed rule change will negatively impact too many of our youngest residents, students who not only rely on SNAP for nutrition at home, but who additionally receive Free and Reduced Lunch benefits at school," French wrote. "Access to these benefits is crucial to their continued growth and success in the classroom and beyond."

Currently, children whose families qualify for food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or 3SquaresVT in Vermont) are automatically eligible for free breakfasts and lunches at school. Under the proposed change, the number of families eligible for SNAP benefits would be reduced, cutting their children out of the school lunch program, or requiring their families to complete an application process to keep their children enrolled.

The application process "can be quite cumbersome and confusing," said Kira Sawyer-Hartigan, nutrition and wellness consultant for the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union. "A lot of families are already dealing with so many other things, whether it's housing insecurity, jobs, transportation issues. We need to try to streamline things, not make things harder."

The end result could be even more children who are unable to access free meals at schools, or local taxpayers being asked to fill the funding gaps.

"The Governor is very uneasy by how disruptive the proposed rule could be to the progress we've made in ensuring kids have nutritional meals and are not going hungry," said Rebecca Kelley, spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott. "We're hopeful the arguments we made - along with many other states - during the public comment period will influence the final rule. If they do not, we will have to assess the impact of the final rule and work on a contingency plan with the Legislature."

Fifty-six schools, including those in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union and the elementary schools in Brattleboro, currently offer free meals to all students using the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). A reduction in the number of students who are eligible because their families participate in SNAP will mean that many of the schools participating in CEP will no longer qualify for the program.

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State officials confirmed that SVSU and the Brattleboro schools were among those where CEP would be threatened should the rule go into effect.

"So many of these children rely on this nutrition to reach their highest potential," said Sawyer-Hartigan. She said reducing the number of children in breakfast and lunch programs has a trickle-down effect, impacting funding for after-school and summer food programs, as well.

Drake Turner, Food Security Advocacy manager at Hunger Free Vermont, said research shows that children learn better, are healthier and have better social outcomes when they have nourishing meals.

"Hunger Free Vermont envisions nutrition as an essential component of learning," Turner said. Families living on the edge financially would now have to shoulder the additional costs of food for their families, making the proposed cuts to the food stamp programs even more challenging.

"We're concerned about everything. All of these programs are so integrated with one another," Turner said of the cuts to SNAP and its impact on school meal programs. "You need everything to be working well so that folks have food every day of their lives."

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan and several advocacy organizations submitted comments in opposition to the food stamp cuts and cited its impact on children's ability to obtain nutritious food.

"Every day, Vermonters are being forced to make tough choices to keep food on the table," Donovan said. He said these nutrition programs "provide Vermonters with a hand up - not a handout - while they work toward sustainable economic security for themselves and their families."

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue has said publicly that concerns are overblown. He said the changes would save about $90 million by adjusting income requirements linked to eligibility and tightening loopholes in the program.