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Federal move jeopardizes free summer meal sites

VOLUNTEERS SERVED FREE meals to kids every week day last summer outside 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 Addison County locations at which children ages 18 and younger will be able to access free food.

Local officials continue to investigate 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 are going to be a lot of gaps and a lot of confusion, because families for the past few years have known so many sites to be available to them to access free meals during the summer.”

Historically, the federal government has underwritten free summer meals in communities in which more than 50% of the local population qualifies for free and reduced-price school lunches. This has ensured that children in low-income families could continue to eat free food when an important source of balanced meals — public schools — were in summer hibernation.

But the feds waived that 50% rule during the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to a proliferation of “open” summer meals sites where any child — regardless of family income — could conveniently grab a free meal in concert with local recreation programming, child care services or by simply stopping by the site.

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

But with the pandemic showing signs of waning (aside from the 194 positive COVID-19 cases in Addison County in the past two weeks), the feds have elected to end the waiver, thus restoring the original summer meal qualification criteria. Hunger Free Vermont and the Vermont Department of Education, among other entities, lobbied to no avail for a waiver extension.

“Unfortunately, Congress pretty intentionally blocked any efforts by any state to get a waiver extension for area eligibility,” Agan said. “It was not for a lack of effort by our Agency of Education. But unfortunately at the federal level, it’s been blocked.”

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

Laura LaVacca is food service director for the Addison Central School District. She said it’s too soon to confirm the exact implications for Middlebury-area children, but she voiced confidence in late April that both Mary Hogan Elementary School and the Middlebury Recreation Program would be open sites serving breakfast and lunch daily. Fortunately, there’s a federal provision that allows a new summer meal site to be considered eligible for up to five years from the date of its designation.

LaVacca said she believes Bridport and Salisbury continue to be eligible communities, though Shoreham might lose its “open” summer meal site status.

“I’d like to hold off on any announcement of summer meals until I have a solid plan,” LaVacca said through an email.

IN VERGENNES

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

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

She said summer meal sites in the Little City will likely be limited to Vergennes Union elementary and high schools. And those sites won’t serve all children, Alexander qualified.

“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 18 could get a summer meal. Instead, we will be providing meals to the enrolled children and meals will be paid for by the program or with federal reimbursements for only those students who are eligible for free meals.”

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

“The request is to give these programs one more year,” she said. “Vergennes is on that list but there has been no word as yet about whether this waiver will be granted so we must plan for what we know.”

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

“We are able to have a few open sites there and we are working to determine where they will be and what we will be able to do,” Alexander said. “We are in the process now of planning to serve free meals at all of the Bristol Recreation Program camp sites, at the Common Ground Summer Camp. There will not be a Summer Meals site at the high school because the building will not be hosting any activities due to construction. The ELP Summer Program has moved to New Haven and we will serve meals there, but since the town of New Haven is not eligible for summer meals, we will be serving meals to enrolled children only and will only be reimbursed for eligible children similar to how the VUES program will work.”

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

“We will likely do a Meal Kit program for these children with 5-7 meals for the week and an once-a-week pickup,” she said. “We are working with the Starksboro Book Wagon to come up with a cooperative plan where families could get both books and a Meal Kit once a week throughout the summer.”

Like LaVacca, Alexander cautioned that the summer meal sites picture could change quickly if Congress elects to extend the waiver or take other action.

In related news, the Vermont Senate on Tuesday passed bill S.100, which proposes to require that all Vermont public schools make breakfast and lunch available to all students at no charge, with funding provided to school districts from the state’s Education Fund. The bill — which was passed earlier this session by the House — 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 universal school lunch for all public school students at no cost to the students or their families.

The bill now goes to the desk of Gov. Phil Scott.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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