Vermont is rushing rashly into a permanent universal student meals (USM) program that will cost taxpayers an estimated $27 million yearly. This sudden push is being driven by a handful of political activists, while ignoring the sources and impacts of funding the program. That in itself is cause for pause.
In a VTDigger article titled “Lawmakers pitch first-in-the nation plan for free school meals,” Vermonters are told:
Nineteen thousand children in Vermont live in food-insecure households, according to a 2019 research report from the Urban Institute. And one-in-four students eligible for free meals at school aren’t participating in the program. … Seventy-seven schools in the Green Mountain State current [sic] provide universal meals using a mix of state and federal funds to more than 16,400 students, the group said.
But 16,400 out of 19,000 students reflects more than 86% effectiveness in providing meals to those in need, not “one-in-four.”
The push to plunge Vermonters into more taxation (which lowers household income and thus increases food insecurity in many Vermont homes) has been championed by Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, who claims “This is an equity issue. … Treat food as the education tool it is.” It is unclear whether it is education, or equity, that is really driving this legislation. If it is equity, then the equity of pushing more taxes onto the education fund must be weighed. If it is education, 86% of eligible (needy) students appear to be served by existing federal guidelines.
Proponents claim the policy must be implemented at the state level because the U.S. Congress refuses:
“States are doing this because federally, we’re not able to find consensus and pass legislation to make this happen,” Jessica Gould, chair of the School Nutrition Association’s public policy and legislation committee, said.
But Congress refuses to pass similar legislation because of equity — the system is currently, and has always been, linked to income eligibility because that is equitable (“progressive,” in fact). Extending benefits for food to include children of very wealthy Vermonters is the exact opposite of progressive. Yet Anore Horton proclaims that is exactly what she seeks to achieve. When Vermont legislators considered merely expanding existing income-based eligibility in 2021, Horton revolted.
“We will actively oppose anything like this that comes to the floor with our network and everything that we have,” Horton told VTDigger. “Because this is not a step towards universal meals. This is an enshrinement in state statute of the broken federal system that we oppose and that is harming our students.”
Horton claims some students don’t apply for benefits due to stigma (apparently less than 14% of them, per the above numbers). She therefore insists that retirees and working class Vermonters must supply meals to children of wealthy families to avoid that stigma, without even a consideration of the tax impacts on low-income adults, or efficiencies of provision. The social justice appeal ignores economics and customary fiscal considerations — indeed, the pitch is that much of this money comes from the federal government.
Yet even if USM is implemented in Vermont, the federal government will still only pay for meals supplied to eligible recipients: 100% of the increase allocable to wealthier students will come from the pockets of Vermonters. There are other problems with this vaunted program. A recent Agency of Education Report revealed there have been recent complaints about meal quality, leading to lower participation rates:
School meals programs also continue to report supply chain shortages, resulting in last minute substitutions that may be of lesser quality than the planned items, or result in odd menu combinations. As a result of these challenges, AOE staff believe meal quality and variety of offerings may be somewhat lower this year. Anecdotally, the AOE and schools are hearing more concerns from students and households about the variety and quality of meals served.
Once the meals are “universal,” there is no incentive for qualifying households to sign up per the federal requirements, which could cause federal participation rates — and thus federal reimbursements — to drop. A Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office Report states:
There is some concern that if all meals are free, families may not submit the application for USDA assistance without the incentive of free and reduced-price meals. Although, the bill does request that school districts collect the data necessary to qualify for federal funds based on student poverty. This analysis provides a range to show how the cost of providing universal school meals may change based on the percentage of eligible and enrolled students.
But Ms. Horton claims this new program is a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic:
“The pandemic has been a horrible, horrible thing in so many ways,” Anore Horton, executive director of the nonprofit Hunger Free Vermont, said in an interview. “And the discovery that it’s possible and desirable to do universal school meals is one silver lining.”
These policies are being railroaded through the Legislature without proper consideration of the full costs, potential inefficiencies, and certain inequities they will inflict. Horton is backed by an out-of-state activist NGO called “Solving Hunger,” created and overseen by a venture capitalist named Bradley Tusk. Tusk made his fortune working for Uber, and has been at the forefront of Democrat political campaigns in New York City.
Is Anore Horton responsive to Vermont taxpayers, or merely the outspoken (paid) mouthpiece of financiers like Bradley Tusk? Vermont legislators are sworn to listen to all of their constituents rather than starry-eyed philanthropists.
John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield. © Copyright True North Reports 2023. All rights reserved.