Lawmakers are considering a bill that would expand food services at public schools to include “free” meals for all — regardless of the ability to pay — as a way to achieve greater equity within Vermont schools.
As passed by the Vermont Senate last year, S.100 proposes “to require all public schools in Vermont to make available school breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge.”
In addition, the proposed legislation would require school boards operating such meals programs to “purchase at least 20 percent of all food for those programs from local producers.”
The bill was the focus of the House Committee on Education this week, where lawmakers took testimony for and against free meals from a host of education, nutrition and hunger experts.
Jeffrey Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said while some superintendents in the state support the measure, others would like to see the money spent on other pressing issues.
“Another superintendent wrote back and said, ‘We’re talking about a new $35 to $38 million investment when we’re seeing a reduction in special education revenues associated with [Act] 173.’ Which is true — we’ve got a lot of educator shortages that we could invest money in addressing that issue. [In addition], the situation with the teachers’ retirement system is not resolved, [and] we’re dealing with aging school infrastructure and capital needs, etc.”
Rep. Casey Toof, R-St. Albans, said a free meals program would be yet another strain on taxpayers.
“To move forward with a new $28-40 million expenditure, and you do not find a revenue source by which to do that, then I would say that you are putting a lot of pressure on other obligations that both exist and could come to pass in the future in terms of school operations,” he said.
Toof cited the example of the recent obligation schools now have to start testing for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as a reason this money might be better held onto rather than spent here.
“We’re not sure what we’re going to find, but we do know that if school districts find PCBs — and we expect some will — and if they don’t have the money to pay for it, they are going to be looking for money, and they will come looking to the state,” he said.
Rep. Kathleen James, D-Manchester, spoke to the issue of competing interests.
“It’s something that I think about a lot, especially when I get an email from a constituent who says, ‘why is the legislature wasting its time working on this when you should be working on that?'” she said. “… What I would respond is that we need to be looking at all times for the most strategic policy levers and the most clear designed policy levers so you can have an inflection point. And the inflection point for nutrition isn’t necessarily the same inflection point for literacy.”
A report by the public policy think tank the American Enterprise Institute last month reviewed the various costs and benefits of universal school lunches, and noted that in other nations not only are parents expected to make the lunches, but they are also expected to have lunch with their children.
“Swiss parents like having their children come home for lunch, because, according to ‘primary data’ acquired from speaking with Swiss citizens, parents abhor the thought of turning over their children all day to a governmental institution,” wrote AEI research fellow Max Eden. “On the other hand, American progressives undoubtedly equally abhor the notion that a parent could be expected to be at home during the workday to feed their child.”
Eden addressed the concern that having some kids bring in lunch and others buy lunch creates stigma among the students.
“Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, the dubious assumption that universal free lunch would actually mitigate the absolute amount of bullying — that kids wouldn’t just redistribute social anxiety and social aggression to other pretexts. Is this the only moral axis in play?” he wrote. “Or is the exclusive emphasis on stigma a product of progressive policymaking’s poor imagination?”
Watch Wednesday’s committee hearing on YouTube.