BRATTLEBORO—All public schools in town now offer meals at no cost to families, thanks to a federal program that helps schools to maximize funds, reduce paperwork, improve nutrition and, ultimately, eliminate stigma.
According to Hunger Free Vermont, 1 in 4 children in Windham County lives in a food-insecure household. For these children in particular, school meals are an important resource during the week.
While many qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school, families don’t always take advantage of this program.
The meals are offered through the Universal Free School Meals program, federally funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.
Participating Brattleboro schools include Academy School, Oak Grove School, Green Street School, Brattleboro Union High School (BUHS), and Brattleboro Area Middle School (BAMS).
Nationwide, school meal participation hovers between 50 and 60 percent. At schools where meals are offered free to all students, participation generally increases. One such example is Oak Grove School, where 73 percent of students participate in school lunch.
Food Connects, a nonprofit that delivers local food and offers educational consulting to Vermont schools, takes the position that Universal School Meals is a smart idea for a number of reasons, according to the news release.
“First, it allows food service professionals to get back to the most important part of their job — cooking,” according to a news release. “It helps get cooks back in the kitchen by significantly reducing the amount of paperwork a school meal program must submit to the federal government each month.
“Second, Universal Meals reduces stigma by taking away the categories of free, reduced, and full-pay students — reducing student hunger and improving student nutrition.
“Lastly, a well-run Universal Meals program will eventually result in more stable program finances for that school, which in turn allows food service professionals to source better ingredients, including locally grown and made products.”
The Brattleboro Town School District was able to purchase more than $10,000 worth of local food from Food Connects Food Hub last school year, including products like yogurt, apples, berries, granola, potatoes, and other vegetables.
“In the time we’ve implemented Universal Meals at BUHS, we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of meals served, both for breakfast and lunch,” said BUHS Principal Steve Perrin. “The overall response from families has been very supportive and we’ve had several parents thank us for taking this step.”
“It is a simple fact that if we’re hungry, we can’t learn as well,” he said.