Vermont Legislature passes Universal School Meals bill

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Vermont Legislature passes Universal School Meals bill

Tue, 05/10/2022 - 5:11pm -- tim

Vermont Business Magazine The Vermont Legislature on Monday gave final approval, via voice vote, to the Universal School Meals Act, S.100. The bill requires all Vermont students to have access to two meals per day during the 2022-23 school year.

During the past two years, the federal government paid for meals for all students through pandemic waivers — this program expires in June, and without state action, 40,000 children could lose access to school meals this fall.

If S.100 is enacted, the state will provide reimbursement to schools on top of regular (non-pandemic) federal funding provided for Universal School Meals. The Joint Fiscal Office estimates the one-year cost at about $29 million based on a range of factors. It could be lower or higher.

The Legislature extended the meals for one year to allow time to establish the true cost. The bill does contain language for processes to continue meals permanently.

“This bill provides assurance to our families, our students, our teachers, and our schools that we will have another year of Universal School Meals. At a time when families and students and teachers have many stressors, this is one thing we can do as a State to help alleviate some of that worry,” said Don Tinney, president of the Vermont National Education Association.

The bill now goes to Governor Phil Scott, who can enact the bill by either signing it or taking no action; once he receives the bill, he has five calendar days to decide.

“We hope the governor will enact the bill when it gets to his desk. We know that hungry kids can’t learn, and this bill will ensure that our Vermont students are fed and focused and ready to learn,” said Scott Fay, president of the School Nutrition Association of Vermont.

More than 1,000 Vermonters have contacted legislators in support of the bill. People who testified in support included school nutrition directors, teachers, students, parents, anti-hunger advocates, business leaders, faith leaders, and school board members.

"The passionate voices from all across our state have been tremendous. The message is clear: school meals are critical to a strong education system. Every child deserves access to all the tools they need to succeed in school." said Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont.

Universal School Meals helps schools serve more local food to Vermont's youth by increasing schools' ability to afford local food and freeing up nutrition staff to focus on cooking meals from scratch and providing nutrition education.

"By removing the cash register from the cafeteria, school nutrition staff can focus on what they love — nurturing students and helping them build a lifelong connection with nutritious local food. Coupled with robust Farm to School programming and the innovative Local Purchasing Incentive Grant program that the Legislature established last year, the Universal School Meals bill will bring Farm Fresh School Meals to all Vermont students," said Betsy Rosenbluth, project director of Vermont FEED.

The $29 million is an estimate from the Joint Fiscal Office. It does not account for these current costs. The reason it doesn't is because there is no uniform way that school districts must report such costs in their budgets. It is impossible to get an accurate count of school meal program debt statewide. Hunger Free Vermont combed through every school district budget for one year, and identified with certainty $1 million of these debts that school districts had to cover out of their school budget general funds, but we are certain that the true amount is higher.  

The reason why the Legislature made this a one-year program with a report back and why Hunger Free Vermont supports this approach is that until statewide universal school meals are implemented during a more "normal" school year, it is impossible to know how much or little it will really cost. The important point here is that it may not cost $29 million next year.

Before the pandemic, 24% of Vermont public schools provided universal school meals. Hunger Free Vermont said they have no way to know the total cost to those who did not offer universal meals and simply absorbed the debt, except to say that it is well over a million and would likely be much higher following 2.5 years of universal school meals, absent enactment of S.100.

"We certainly hope Governor Scott will enact S.100, which is supported by many Vermont businesses that understand universal school meals as a workforce development and retention initiative. 55% of Vermont students live in households with incomes that are too high to qualify for free school meals, but are less than $150,000 per year. This is the "missing middle" of Vermont working families who are struggling to afford to live and raise their families in Vermont, and many of them struggle with food insecurity," said Anore Horton.

About Hunger Free Vermont: Hunger Free Vermont is a statewide nonprofit organization that works with state agencies and community groups to develop sustainable hunger solutions. Since 1993 Hunger Free Vermont’s outreach programs and advocacy have substantially enhanced Vermont’s nutrition safety net and increased access to nutritious 

Joint Fiscal Office May 9, 2022.

Bill Summary
This bill requires all public schools in Vermont to provide school meals (breakfast and lunch) to all students at no charge to families, and for  independent schools to provide school meals to all students attending on public tuition at no charge, for FY 2023. This proposal is for FY  2023 and requires a report on impact and status of implementation and a report on possible revenue options for future year funding.

Fiscal Impact
JFO estimates the bill would have a $29 million impact on the Education Fund as an appropriation to the Agency of Education to provide  reimbursement for school meals.

Background and Details
The following sections have a fiscal impact.
Section 3
Section 3 mandates that each public school1 provide daily breakfast and lunch to attending students at no cost to the students or their families. Section 3 also requires independent schools1 to provide daily breakfast and lunch at no cost to each student attending on public tuition.

JFO estimates the annual cost for the provision of universal school meals to all public-school students, and all students attending independent schools on public tuition to be between $25 million and $42 million per year.2

This cost heavily depends on two factors – the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch from the Federal Government, and the average participation rate of students eating meals. A lower percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch from the Federal government results in higher costs to the State. A higher participation rate of students eating meals also leads to higher costs to the State.3

For Fiscal Year 2023, JFO estimates the provision of universal breakfast and lunch to cost approximately $29 million. This estimate assumes 30% of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals, and current average participation rates (60% participation in breakfast, and 75% participation in lunch).

If universal meals are continued past FY 2023, JFO estimates that the cost will increase over time to $37 million. The annual cost is expected to increase for a number of reasons, including an anticipated decrease in students eligible for free and reduced-price meals in accordance with current trends as well as a potential behavior shift, and an anticipated increase in student participation rates.

Section 5
Section 5 appropriates $29 million from the Education Fund to the Agency of Education in Fiscal Year 2023 for the reimbursement of school meals outlined in Section 3.

As described above, the cost of the provision of universal school meals largely depends on two factors – the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch from the Federal Government, and the average participation rate of students eating meals. A lower percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch leads to higher costs to the State. A higher participation rate also leads to higher costs to the State. The following table outlines the range of costs associated with different assumptions of these cost factors:

1 This is specific to all schools operating a school breakfast and lunch program recognized under the National Child Nutrition Act and the National School Lunch Act.

2 This range has been updated since previous estimates to reflect the additional cost of including independent schools.

3 For additional insight and background, please reference JFO’s previous fiscal note on S.100:

4 Between FY15 and FY22, 40% of students received free and reduced-price meals.

5.10.2022. MONTPELIER, Vermont — Hunger Free Vermont. JFO.