The House on Tuesday passed a bill on second reading that would initiate a universal school breakfast program as well as a study on potentially including lunches.
Estimates for the cost for one year of breakfast and lunch are $29 million, to be taken from the education fund surplus — now at about $100 million.
Before the measure passed with an affirmative voice vote, some lawmakers grilled supporters on whether a universal meals program would create new tax burdens on the poor to subsidize the wealthy.
“The provisions that I just read in regards to other sources of revenue that are going to be considered, those such revenues are going to be paid for by the most vulnerable and the ones that qualify now for free and reduced lunch,” Rep. Mark Higley, R-Lowell, said on the House floor. “So basically you are going to make them pay for individuals that can readily afford to pay for their own child’s meals. So for that reason alone I won’t be supporting this bill.”
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, shared a similar comment.
“As other members have pointed out, [some recipients] would be benefiting from the tax burden placed on lower-income families,” she said.
The bill received multiple amendments. Most notably, one adds the language “The Agency of Education may use the Universal Income Declaration Form to collect the household income information necessary for the implementation of a universal meals program.”
The use of this form — which doesn’t currently exist — will be necessary for federal funding for subsidized meals based on income. Those not covered by the federal government would then have to be covered by Vermont taxpayers. Critics suggested this could create pressure on families to share sensitive income information, and supporters argued that the form will remain optional.
Donahue inquired about data concerning the current state-supported meal programs of Vermont. She asked for the percentage of families making 400% over the federal poverty level, the percentage of Vermonters who are eligible for these meal programs, and the percentage of Vermonters who are actually engaged in the programs.
Rep. Erin Brady, D-Williston, one of the bill’s presenters, said the Agency of Education reports there was about a 30% participation rate for free or reduced breakfast program before the onset of COVID. As of the beginning of this past school year participation increased to about 36%. Those numbers for the same time periods for free and reduced lunches are 55% and then 57%.
Donahue also suggested that the ratio of those utilizing the program compared to those earning over 400% of the federal poverty level could be a strong data point for policymakers to have.
“What’s most important is the difference between those who would be eligible and those who are actually accessing it,” she said. “… Again what you would be looking at is, when you look at bang for the buck, how many additional children would we be helping? And how many children who don’t need the help would that cost in order to reach those children?”
Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P-Essex Town, spoke out in support of the bill.
“I’ve worked as a school social worker and was part of a team for my school that scrambled at the onset of the pandemic to make sure that students were fed,” she said. “We delivered school meals and took boxes of food from our local food shelves so that kids could eat and the stress of the pandemic was decreased.
“As a school social worker I have worked in many different schools, some of which were known to be high-poverty schools, and some of which were not thought of in that way. And I know that universal school meals will make every single one of our schools stronger and better.”
Hunger Free Vermont posted on Twitter to celebrate the House’s approval.
Universal School Meals just took a big leap forward! Today, S.100 passed its 2nd reading in the House. One more step to go in the House, then its off to the Senate!
— Hunger Free Vermont (@HungerFreeVT) April 26, 2022