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As I rode buses throughout Windham County last spring — lending a hand to school staff and volunteers distributing meals to students — the landscape that rolled by the bus windows felt unfamiliar. The pandemic forced a new perspective upon me as a fragility in our community became exposed, one that had always existed, hidden behind closed front doors and down rutted dirt roads.

COVID-19 may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, but we were already carrying a heavy load. With a near tripling in the number of Vermonters experiencing food insecurity, it’s clear that our community had preexisting conditions. The urgency is heightened when you focus on Vermont’s youngest; children in our state consistently experience higher food insecurity levels than the general population. One specific response to these startling facts is the ever-growing call for universal school meals.

Universal Meals is a shift in how we feed our children in schools and is being called for on the state and federal levels. Nationwide, the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the organization representing school nutrition professionals, calls for Universal Meals for the first time in their history. In Vermont, Hunger Free VT, an education and advocacy organization, has led the charge by promoting a Universal Meals bill in the State House. The proposed legislation would make breakfast and lunch available to every student, free of charge for the student and their family. Instead, the program would be paid for through a combination of federal and state reimbursements, with the remaining cost coming from the state’s Education Fund. Education spending is complicated, and there are many more details to dig into. Still, the two things that stand out for me are that: the new program would maximize the federal reimbursements we bring into the state, and it would bring school meals funding in line with the vast majority of school spending.

Widespread hunger doesn’t need to exist in our communities, especially for children. We’ve already done most of the hard work, the infrastructure to feed our communities exists — we have commercial kitchens, trained and dedicated chefs, and rural transportation figured out. I’m talking, of course, about schools — strip away the familiar language of the cafeteria, the lunch lady, and the school bus and we suddenly have a radical idea. Schools already provide childcare, education, and extracurricular activities to any Vermont child, regardless of income or need. Why not nutritious food too? Universal public education has become such a fundamental part of American society that it’s now taken for granted.

Yet, our imaginations seem to fail us when asked if every student should also have the right to nutritious and filling meals without relying on parents to complete forms or jump through bureaucratic hoops. Instead, a complex web of programs feeds some students while leaving others behind, operating behind an opaque bureaucratic curtain, confusing for most adults and impossible to explain to the children it most affects. As a result, the thing students most need to thrive in life — nutritious food — is also the only thing to which they lack universal access. Why are we unable to take this comparatively small step?

Some universal meals opponents argue that it ends up being a subsidy for well-off families because the poor already qualify for free meals. Ignoring the fact that you don’t hear this argument when discussing any other aspect of school life, you’re also leaving a substantial number of food-insecure students behind by following this approach. According to Hunger Free VT, 42 percent of food-insecure students are ineligible for federal and state nutrition programs. This gap of students who need support that they aren’t receiving shows that our traditional approaches aren’t working.

The bottom line is, the more hurdles you put in place for students accessing free meals, the more students that fall through the cracks. When it comes to feeding our community’s children, I’d instead run the “risk” of feeding too many — rather than too few.

Now is our opportunity to make this decades-long campaign a reality. COVID-19 has forced open the minds of many, and things once unthinkable are now possible. We need the community to collectively affirm that nutrition is a fundamental human right and our students deserve better than the status quo. I’m asking you to join the campaign as an advocate; it’s not as difficult as you may think. Show your support via Hunger Free VT’s website (universalschoolmealsvt.org/supporter-cards) or tell your school administrator or local representative that universal school meals are a priority. It’ll require a groundswell of support to ensure that our renewed sense of what’s possible isn’t left behind.

Conor Floyd is the Farm to School program manager for Food Connects. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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