Legislature approves universal school meals bill

Program would extend pandemic program indefinitely, but whether it faces a veto from Gov. Scott is unclear

MONTPELIER — Vermont lawmakers in both chambers have now given approval to legislation that would create an indefinitely operating universal school meals program, though it's unclear whether the governor will sign it.

On May 5, the Senate voted to give initial approval to H.165, which would require schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to Vermont students. The legislation passed the House in March.

“About a year ago, when I heard about universal school meals, I remember thinking to myself, 'That sounds nice, it makes sense, and let's make sure kids are fed,'” Sen. Nader Hashim, D-Windham, said on the floor.

“And then I visited a local high school in my district and sat with a group of students and staff to hear about the program,” he said. “And when I heard the stories from the kids, and the world of difference that the teachers and staff noticed, I walked away recognizing that universal school meals was going to be one of my top priorities in the Legislature.”

The bill would require public schools to offer all students free breakfast and lunch. Independent schools could also opt in to the program to provide meals to students who attend on public tuition.

To receive the lunch benefits, schools would have to participate in federal food aid programs to maximize the public funding available to them. Schools would be reimbursed for the amount of money spent on the meals. The legislation also seeks to create incentives to use local food in school meals.

Under an amendment offered by the Senate Committee on Appropriations, the bill would set aside $29 million for the program - a price tag estimated by the Legislative Joint Fiscal Office. The dollars for the program are set to come out of the state's education fund, a pot of money mostly filled by property taxes which pays for Vermont's schools. The fund is currently enjoying a roughly $64 million surplus.

But despite its momentum, the school meals legislation has not been without opposition.

Some lawmakers have expressed concern that, because the program offers free meals to all students, it would force Vermont taxpayers to subsidize meals for wealthy families - and could, in the education fund's leaner years, raise residents' property taxes to do so.

“What this bill will do is assure universal meals, and that will mean children from the most affluent communities and the most affluent families will have the benefit,” Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, said on the floor.

Advocates have argued that the bill would reduce the stigma for low-income children who receive free meals at school. Kitchel, however, argued that the program would do little to obscure socioeconomic differences in schools.

“But don't kid ourselves,” Kitchel said. “Students know whose children are poor. They know because of [their] phone. They know it because of their clothing. They know it because of anything. And in some cases it's because the bus picks them up at the motel.”

Gov. Phil Scott has also expressed hesitation about the program.

The governor “remains concerned that the bill would increase property tax pressure, and therefore potentially rents,” his spokesperson Jason Maulucci said in a May 5 email. “This approach could disproportionately impact lower-income Vermonters in order to essentially provide affluent families support that they do not need.”

Heather Bouchey, Vermont's interim secretary of education, told lawmakers in the Senate appropriations committee on May 3 that now is not the time to implement a program, given that “economic forecasts show clouds on the horizon,” according to written testimony.

“I appreciate the opportunity to clarify that the Administration does not support creating a permanent universal meals program this year,” Bouchey said.

But the bill passed on May 5 by voice vote, after multiple senators rose in support of it.

“Kids cannot learn if they have not eaten breakfast and lunch,” Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, said in remarks on the floor. “This is just as important to kids' education as books are.”

The bill, which if passed will take effect July 1, must receive final signoff by the Senate, and the House must approve the amended version before it heads to the governor's desk.

Maulucci did not respond to an email seeking clarification about the governor's plans for the legislation.

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