Vermont lawmakers will take a deep dive into many thorny issues this session, including how to expand and improve affordable child care, crack down on substance abuse and the crime it attracts, increase affordable housing for young, working families, and more.
But here’s an easy one with no thorn in sight: making sure all Vermont’s children have at least two healthy meals every single day, Monday through Friday, weekends and over the summer.
Once again, Vermont’s universal school meals program, which was federally funded during the pandemic but handed back to the states last year, is set to expire in June after being extended for one year on the state’s dime. Lawmakers passed and Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill providing $29 million for one year for the program last May.
Not only must that program be extended, but lawmakers should make it permanent, acknowledging that the challenge of feeding hungry children cannot fall off the agenda. Ever.
There are several reasons why this is a no-brainer. First, we know how to reach kids: at school. That offers an easy way to provide nutritious breakfasts and lunches during the week. Some schools and community organizations also go the extra mile and distribute food for children to take home on weekends.
The Banner editor participated on one such program, bagging food to be handed out to kids on Fridays for take-home weekend meals. Some children would ask for extra bags to make sure their older siblings had food over the weekend, as well (the group always made sure there were spare food bags available). That food was all those children could expect to eat at home.
Second, providing meals to all children, not just those who meet some income threshold (hence the term “universal”), removes barriers to ensuring every child eats. Gone is the stigma unfairly linked to low-income programs; gone is the complicated paperwork required of income-eligible parents to ensure their children have food; and gone is the wasted time for state staff to wade through that paperwork rather than focus on programs that truly help Vermont families.
In addition, universal school and summertime meals provide better quality food for kids — brain food. They provide fresh veggies, fruit, and a balanced diet, often from local farms. Hungry kids don’t learn. Hungry kids have to work harder to do well in school and build a better future for themselves. We, as a society, end up shouldering higher social services costs when we scrimp on programs to keep children fed, healthy and thriving.
And while those reasons are enough to fund the universal meals program, the single most important reason is much simpler.
Our children are precious. Our children are our future. Our children don’t understand when we say “the state budget can’t afford the cost of ensuring you don’t go hungry.” Our children deserve our best. Caring for them is at the top of our priority list, No. 1, ahead of all the other complex needs.
We as a state and community are judged on how we care for our youngest and most vulnerable.
Making the universal meals program permanent and ensuring the funding extends to summer programs is a must-do. But tackling the issues that drive hunger — for children and adults — is also important.
“We also need to address the root causes of hunger, not just a system that lifts some individuals out of poverty temporarily and excludes others. We need systems that allow everyone to have access to nourishing, dignified food. We need to address race-based inequities in access to food and to ensure our systems don’t require families to make impossible choices in meeting basic needs.”
So wrote Hunger Free Vermont Executive Director Anore Horton, and John Sayles, CEO of Vermont Foodbank, in October.
They are right. A University of Vermont-led study last year found that two out of every five Vermonters have experienced hunger. Aggravating the problem are inflationary costs of everything impacting the family budget, from food to housing to health care to heat.
Lifting people out of poverty is a complex challenge, one that Vermont lawmakers deal with directly and indirectly every time they discuss housing, jobs, education and more.
But feeding kids isn’t complex or thorny. It should be the easiest decision Vermont lawmakers will make all session.