Federal ruling jeopardizes free summer meal sites

VOLUNTEERS SERVED FREE meals to children every weekday last summer outside the Memorial Sports Center in Middlebury.
Independent Photo/Megan James

ADDISON COUNTY — The scheduled June 30 expiration of a federal waiver will reduce the number of locations in Addison County where children 18 and under can access free food.

Local officials continue to research exactly how many fewer sites there will be and where they will be.

“It’s really, really sad,” Keely Agan, early childhood nutrition manager for Hunger Free Vermont, said of the upcoming reduction in free summer meal sites.

“There’s going to be a lot of gaps and a lot of confusion because families for the past few years have known about so many sites available to them to access free meals over the summer.”

Historically, the federal government has sponsored free summer meals in communities where more than 50% of the local population is entitled to free and reduced-price school meals. This allowed children from low-income families to continue eating for free when a major source of balanced meals – public schools – went into summer hibernation.

But the federal government waived that 50% rule in the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to a proliferation of “open” summer meal sites where any child – regardless of family income – could easily grab a free meal in concert with local recreation programs, child care services or simply by stopping at the site.

There have been several free and open summer lunch sites in Addison County during the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, including Mary Hogan Elementary School, Ripton Elementary School, Bingham School Memorial in Cornwall, Salisbury Community School, Mount Abraham and Vergennes High Schools, Robinson Mobile Home Park Elementary and Lazy Brook in Starksboro, Shoreham’s Platt Memorial Library and Bridport Central School.

But with the pandemic showing signs of waning (aside from Addison County’s 194 positive COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks), the federal government chose to end the waiver, restoring the original qualification criteria for summer meals. Hunger Free Vermont and the Vermont Department of Education, among other entities, lobbied unsuccessfully for an extension of the waiver.

“Unfortunately, Congress quite intentionally blocked all efforts by a state to obtain an extension of the waiver for area eligibility,” Agan said. “It’s not for lack of effort by our education agency. But unfortunately at the federal level, it is blocked.

So instead of universal free meals and multiple county locations, free food options this summer will be more limited for kids, according to advocates, who are calculating eligibility numbers.

Laura LaVacca is Director of Food Services for Addison Central School District. She said it was too early to confirm the exact implications for children in the Middlebury area, but expressed confidence in late April that Mary Hogan Primary School and the Middlebury Leisure Scheme would be open sites serving breakfast and lunch daily. Fortunately, there is a federal provision that allows a new summer dining site to be considered eligible for up to five years from the date of its designation.

LaVacca said it believes Bridport and Salisbury continue to be eligible communities, although Shoreham may lose its status as an “open” summer dining site.

“I would like to delay any summer meal announcements until I have a solid plan,” LaVacca said via email.

IN VERGENNES

Kathy Alexander is the principal of the Mount Abraham Unified School District and the Addison Northwest School District Food Service Cooperative.

“Yes, the end of federal waivers means that we will not be able to run all the programs that we have run in the past, especially in Vergennes,” Alexander said in an email exchange with the Independent.

She said summer meal sites in the small town will likely be limited to primary and secondary schools in Vergennes Union. And these sites will not serve all children, qualified Alexander.

“These are school-based summer enrichment and recreation programs that will not be ‘open’ sites, as they have been in the past, where any child under the age of 18 could get a meal of ‘summer. Instead, we will provide meals to enrolled children, and meals will be paid for by the program or with federal reimbursements only for students who qualify for free meals.

Alexander noted that the Education Agency’s Office of Nutrition Programs requested a special USDA waiver for six areas/cities – including Vergennes – that were at the end of their five-year eligibility cycle. when the pandemic started.

“The request is to give these programs another year,” she said. “Vergennes is on this list, but it is not yet known if this waiver will be granted, so we have to plan according to what we know.”

Free summer meals will also be less accessible in MAUSD, and especially absent from Mount Abraham Union High School.

“We are able to have a few sites open there and we are working to figure out where they will be and what we can do,” Alexander said. “We are planning to serve free meals at all Bristol Leisure Program campsites at Common Ground Summer Camp. There will be no summer lunch site at the secondary school as the building will not host any activities due to construction works. The ELP Summer Program has moved to New Haven and we will be serving meals there, but since the city of New Haven is not eligible for summer meals, we will only be serving meals to registered children and will not be reimbursed only for eligible children. the VIEWS program will work.

Starksboro is the only MAUSD community eligible for free summer meals based on current federal criteria, according to Alexander.

“We’ll probably do a meal kit program for these kids with 5-7 meals a week and pick up once a week,” she said. “We are working with the Starksboro Book Wagon to provide a cooperative plan where families could get both books and a meal kit once a week throughout the summer.”

Like LaVacca, Alexander warned that the image of summer dining sites could change quickly if Congress decides to extend the waiver or take other action.

In a similar vein, the Vermont Senate on Tuesday passed Bill S.100, which proposes to require all public schools in Vermont to make free breakfast and lunch available to all students, with funding provided to school districts by the state Education Fund. The bill — which passed the House earlier this session — would also establish a task force to advise the General Assembly on how, no later than the 2026-2027 school year, to achieve the goal of providing a universal school lunch to all public schools. students at no cost to students or their families.

The bill now goes to Governor Phil Scott’s office.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]