With the start of the new school year, low-income students in Vermont can now eat breakfast and lunch for free.
Vermont is the first state to offer both meals at no charge to low-income students who meet the federal threshold for free or reduced-price meals, according to anti-hunger advocates.
“We all know that hungry children can't learn,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said last week during a visit to Barre Town Elementary School to promote the initiative. “I am very proud that Vermont is the first state to ensure that all children have access to good food, so that they can focus on their education without worrying whether they will be hungry.”
Cities and states across the country are working to boost participation in school meal programs. A growing number of states are offering free breakfast to students, and more schools are now offering breakfast during the school day, which helps reduce the stigma associated with free and reduced-price meals and increase participation rates, according to Courtney Smith, program director of Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign.
Vermont state has offered free breakfast for all students who qualify for reduced-price meals since 2008. Under a new law, students who were previously eligible for reduced-price meals can now have breakfast and lunch at no charge.
Last year, about 31,000 students in Vermont were eligible for free meals and about 6,000 more were eligible for reduced-price meals, according to Laurie Colgan, the state's child nutrition program director. Children whose families earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $43,568 for a family of four, are eligible for reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program. Those who earn less than 130 percent, or $30,615 for a family of four, are eligible for free meals.
Last year, about 71 percent of students eligible for free meals in Vermont participated daily and 63 percent of those eligible for reduced-price meals participated, Colgan said. The new law is expected to cost the state $380,000 to $400,000 a year, which will come from the state's general fund.
Those paying reduced prices last year were charged 40 cents for lunch, compared with the full price of $1.50 to $3.75, depending on the school. Colgan said schools reported that many students had trouble finding that much money for their meals.
Elsewhere around the country, states and school districts are taking a variety of approaches to combat student hunger, particularly by addressing breakfast.
Earlier this year, Colorado legislators enacted a law offering free breakfast to every student in a public school where at least 70 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch beginning in 2014-2015. Arkansas approved a new law to support innovative school breakfast programs. West Virginia adopted a law that aims to encourage school breakfast participation, and Texas enacted a law to require schools where more than 80 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals to offer free breakfast to all students.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is rolling out a program known as Community Eligibility Option, which allows high-need schools to offer free breakfast and/or lunch to all students, regardless of income, without filing the paperwork traditionally associated with free and reduced-price meal programs.
Under this program, schools receive federal reimbursement for meals based on the levels of students already identified as low-income through other programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or if they fall into certain categories such as foster children or homeless. Schools are eligible if 40 percent or more of their students are identified as low-income.
Schools in Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan began to participate in 2011; New York, Ohio, West Virginia and the District of Columbia joined last year, according to the No Kid Hungry campaign. This year, Maryland, Florida, Georgia and Massachusetts are also participating and next year, all states can join.
According to a survey of public school teachers by No Kid Hungry, three in five kindergarten through eighth grade teachers say students regularly come to school hungry. Research shows hunger in children is associated with increased behavioral, emotional and academic problems.