Commentary: All kids deserve access to nourishing foods in school

By KAREN COLBERG

Published: 03-23-2023 10:38 AM

Karen Colberg is co-CEO at King Arthur Baking Co. in Norwich.

Vermont businesses large and small are pillars of our local communities: providing goods and services, offering local employment opportunities, contributing to the local economy, and advocating for the well-being of our people. Ensuring our current workforce and their families have what they need is more than just good business — it’s about creating a thriving future for our communities and state.

By supporting kids’ physical, mental and emotional development today through proper nutrition, we are investing in tomorrow’s workers and leaders. It is our job to care for our state’s students, so students can focus on their job — showing up to class able to concentrate and ready to learn all they need to become the skilled and creative people who will power Vermont’s future. It’s simple: No student should learn what hunger feels like at school.

We can continue Universal School Meals and permanently ensure that all children, regardless of family income, are taken care of in the cafeteria. When families know that their students can eat at school, they can show up for work without the added worry of making sure school meals are taken care of.

In the last year, we have seen the positive impacts of Universal School Meals, with more than 50,000 students eating lunch and about 32,000 eating breakfast — at no cost to their families. A 2020 study by University of Vermont researchers found that Universal School Meals were associated with improved readiness to learn, improved school social climate as a result of financial difference being less visible, declines in financial and emotional stress for parents and students, declines in stress for school administrators related to the need to collect school meal program debts from families, and increased ability of schools to purchase and serve local food.

Now our lawmakers are working to make Universal School Meals permanent in Vermont, through the bill H.165. Last year, California, Maine and Colorado made Universal School Meals permanent. Just last week, the New Mexico House passed permanent Universal School Meals; New York is poised to do the same. Minnesota signed free school meals in to law earlier this week.

A total of 22 other states, including Vermont, have permanent Universal School Meals under consideration by legislators right now. This is a national movement that Vermont started, as the first state to introduce a bill for permanent Universal School Meals in 2020. Let’s wrap up this bill and make it permanent in the Education Fund so all our Vermont families can have peace of mind, knowing their children have two nutritious meals during the school day.

Also signatories on this commentary: The Abbey Group, Enosburg Falls, Vt.; The Alchemist, Stowe, Vt.; Brattleboro Food Co-op, Brattleboro, Vt.;Groennfell Meadery, St. Albans, Vt.; Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, Middlebury, Vt.; National Life Group, Montpelier, Vt.; Phoenix Books, Essex Junction, Vt.; Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, Burlington

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