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Column: Free school meals help all students thrive

For the Valley News
Published: 11/24/2021 10:10:27 PM
Modified: 11/24/2021 10:10:11 PM

As representatives of local food access and education organizations, we are writing to urge Marion Cross School to serve meals through the school breakfast and national school lunch programs so all students can have the same opportunities to thrive (“No free lunch in Norwich school,” Nov. 12).

Operating these programs are a win-win for kids, for Marion Cross, and for the entire community of Norwich.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Vermont schools that operate these national meal programs have been able to offer free meals to all students, regardless of income, due to federal waivers. Schools that don’t participate in federal meal programs (and their currently available waivers) don’t receive the federal money that could be used to support school meal programs and offer students the nutrition they need to succeed.

Nearly every public school in Vermont participates in the federal meal programs, including some schools with limited or no kitchen facilities, without cafeterias, or that work in districts that cross state lines. Federal meal programs ensure that every meal served follows rigorous nutrition standards, and school meals are the single best and most equitable source of nutrition for all children, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. We know that when every child has equal access to school meals, students’ academic performance and the social environment of the school improve. We also know that hunger is often hidden, especially in children.

While we commend Marion Cross’ efforts so far to provide food for its students, data show that over 40% of Vermont children in food-insecure households are not eligible for food assistance programs like 3SquaresVT.

Because many food insecure children aren’t eligible for food assistance, school meals play an especially vital role in the nutrition and development of our children. The current situation stigmatizes children and families, which may result in them deciding to not eat a school meal, even if they are hungry. This means that far too many students in our community are going unserved.

A local example of the positive impact of free school meals is the Windsor Central Unified School District, where meal participation has increased over 50% across the district compared to when the paid meals program was in place.

Students feel more comfortable accessing meals when they don’t feel they are being sorted into a category. This also allows families to put back into their pockets the dollars they would have spent on school meals and then use those dollars for purchasing food for home.

Living and working in the Upper Valley education community, we understand that Marion Cross School, the School District and the entire community of Norwich care deeply about the children and families who live here.

We also know that by operating the national school breakfast and lunch programs, the school would make important strides toward its goal of empowering all students to realize their intellectual, physical, emotional, creative and social potential.

The added revenue also would allow Marion Cross to increase the amount of local food it purchases, which has been the case with 64% of Vermont schools providing universal school meals. This helps ensure that all students are able to get the healthy nutritious meals they need to thrive.

Please continue to support your students by operating the national school breakfast and lunch programs and taking advantage of valuable federal waivers that allow all students access to free meals.

Beth Roy, of Hartland, is director of Food & Farm and place-based education programming at Vital Communities. Gretchen Czaja, of Woodstock, is school nutrition program director at the Windsor Central Unified School District.

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