S.100 creates a one-year universal school meal program that provides free breakfast and lunch for all public school students and independent school students who attend on public tuition.
In furthering our vision of an informed and active electorate, we are providing summaries of key bills considered during the 2022 legislative session. S.100 is one of these.
S.100 Bill Summary
Act no 152 (S.100) creates a one-year universal school meal program that provides free breakfast and lunch for all public school students and independent school students who attend on public tuition. It is notable that thirty-eight percent of Vermont students during 2019 – 2020 qualified for free and reduced price lunches. Legislators were also reminded that students need fresh and nutritional foods to help them focus on their education. Sadly, they also learned that many students come to school hungry. During the first year of the pandemic, nearly one-third of children in Vermont faced food insecurity.
A report in 2019 found that up to forty-two percent of children living in food-insecure homes were not eligible to participate in the free and reduced lunch program. The legislature learned that school meals support a vibrant agricultural economy and that the meal programs in Vermont are associated with improving the overall school climate, make financial differences less visible and improve student readiness.
During the past two years the federal government paid for meals for all students through the pandemic. However, waivers expired this past June, meaning that over 40,000 children could loose access to school meals. It was estimated that a one-year program could cost Vermont up to $29M. Hunger Free Vermont, a non-profit leading a campaign to bring universal school meals to every public school in the state, supports the one-year program and noted that reporting back during a ‘normal’ year might provide a more accurate cost.
Legislators also learned that 55 percent of Vermont students live in households with incomes too high to qualify but are living in households dealing with food insufficiency. The bill will also benefit these students. Section 3 of the bill notes that breakfasts can be either picked up by students or made available in classrooms. The national child nutrition act and national school lunch act expect that schools will seek the highest level of participation possible to ensure that each student is ready to learn and also requires that schools pursue the maximum federal funds allowed. It also puts a one year moratorium on schools to ask for an exemption from the program.
Section 3 also details how schools participating in community eligibility provisions (provision 2) can access federal funds and allows the Agency of Education to use the universal income declaration form to collect the household income information required to apply for federal funds.
The bill was reviewed and approved as amended by the House Ways & Means, Appropriations and Education committees and by the Senate Education, Finance and Appropriations Committees and signed into law by the Governor. This act requires the Agency of Education to report to the House and Senate committees of jurisdiction and the Joint Fiscal Office to report on potential revenue sources not normally used for general fund purposes.
Updates From the Last 6 Weeks of the Legislative Session
April 4th Update
Anore Horton spoke to the House Ways & Means Committee for Hunger Free Vermont on S.100, saying that there are currently two forms being used in schools, which is causing a bit of confusion. One is the free and reduced lunch (FRL) form and the other is the family income (FI) form which determines school funding for those living in poverty. FRL forms cannot be required per federal guidelines (although it is beneficial to schools). Household income forms are a critical metric of poverty but not necessarily nutrition.
The total financial impact of universal school meals for the state is reliant on several factors. Meal participation is the single greatest variable, because the state would be covering the difference between the federal reimbursement level and actual costs. The Federal reimbursement is usually not adequate to cover the cost of producing a meal and many schools have to augment using their budgets.
There are three levels of meals: free, reduced and paid. The Joint Fiscal Office (JFO) has projected costs as high as $40M to operate a universal program.
Out of a total of 297 public schools, 85 currently offer at least one meal free to all students (usually breakfast) and 65 of these schools offer both breakfast and lunch. In the remaining schools, students who do not qualify for the FRL program are charged for their meals. These schools would be directly impacted by the mandate to serve universal school meals. In Vermont, 56K students are enrolled in schools that do not offer universal breakfast, and 64K are enrolled in schools that do not offer universal lunch.
The eligibility threshold for the FRL program is 185% of the federal poverty line, only $32,227 for a single parent with one child. JFO estimates that a single parent/one child household in urban Vermont in 2021 requires $67,759 to meet basic needs, more than twice the income-level that qualifies for FRL, and nearly 400% of the federal poverty line. As family size increases, the gap only grows.
April 24th Update
The House Appropriations Committee reviewed the Universal School Meals bill, S.100, on Thursday. Representative Harrison announced that he could not support the bill because it is using one-time monies for an ongoing program without a clear understanding of where future funding was going to come from. It also concerned him that there was little understanding of the overall costs of the program.
There was some concern from other members of the Committee that if the federal government implemented their own universal meals program, it was unclear what would happen to the funds they would allocate here. The prevailing logic is that the funds would revert to the Education Fund. The bill was voted out of Committee 7-4-0.
May 1st Update
S.100 passed the House floor on a voice vote Wednesday. This will turn into a controversial issue on the Senate side because it uses one-time funds (a surplus in Education Fund revenue) for what is clearly an ongoing program. The Senate Education Committee has already determined they would prefer to spend the money on PCB testing in schools instead.
The bill would simply reimburse what schools spend on meals as long as they provide them to students for free. These funds would be layered on top of whatever funds the school district draws down through the federal free or reduced lunch program. The bill appropriates $29M from the Education Fund for this program, but no one quite knows how much it will cost. The bill asks the Agency of Education to come back next year with a report on the performance of the program, how many students utilized it, and what the actual cost was.
Representative Donahue was concerned about the privacy issues that a universal income declaration form potentially poses. Currently such forms are optional. It was noted that this was a ‘massive public policy issue, and the bill says nothing about protecting the information that would be collected on the form. The form has yet developed or reviewed by the legislature.
May 8th Update
Chair of Education Committee voiced support for S.100 on the Senate floor Wednesday. Originally when they looked at the bill, his committee thought that they would not be able to support it because they felt they would be subsidizing middle-income and wealthy Vermonters who can afford to buy their children lunch. But, when they started hearing the stories about kids who are just above the poverty level – such as single moms not making enough to cover all the costs - it changed their minds. He noted that is heartbreaking to not have money for your children's lunch. The committee hopes that this program will not just be a one year program, but continue going forward if funding can be found.
The Committee's amendment requires a report to collect data so that the program can be analyzed to identify potential revenue resources. There is an ongoing tension in the Senate over whether to commit more funds for universal school meals, to expand them beyond just the breakfasts included in this bill, or to address PCB remediation in school buildings. Of course, both of these stand in contrast with the Governor's request to spend half of the $95M Education Fund surplus on tax relief.
The property tax yield bill will likely end up funding all three priorities at some level. Senator Sears voiced concern for how we pay for this program in the future. We (the legislature) haven’t thought this through and he is worried about the pressure on the Education Fund and taxes. It is hard to vote against feeding kids, but if we make this commitment without a funding source with a recession coming, this is a problem.
Despite these concerns, the bill passed the Senate unanimously.
The Senate Education Committee continued to take testimony on S.100 the next day, wanting to set aside $40M for PCB remediation. Senator Chittenden noted that PCB money would go to few schools. There were serious concerns with funding school meals given the amount of money that will be spent to remediate PCBs over the next decade (Burlington's new $200M school building being a good indication of this). The House is looking for $29M for meals in FY2023.
Chittenden was not supportive of the bill without PCB funds, but the Committee is looking at adding in language to set aside money for PCBs. One option would be to use funds to relocate students if PCBs are too high in a particular school building. However, this assumes that another suitable facility exists to relocate to. There was also a conversation about how federal money could be used to help deal with PCBs.
The Department of Environmental Conservation and the Agency of Education will look at how to distribute funds to deal with PCBs over the summer.
The bill was signed by Governor Scott on May 31st, 2022
Page last updated 6/27/2022
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