Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories that look at how the numbers of local families accessing food assistance programs have changed in the past decade.
BRISTOL — For the first time, more than half the students at Bristol Elementary School meet the low-income guidelines for free and reduce-priced meals. In an attempt to stave off child hunger and rein in school finances, Bristol is offering free breakfasts to all of its students.
Bristol Elementary is the first school in Addison County to take advantage of a USDA program known as Provision Two. By offering free breakfasts to all students, Provision Two has boosted student participation in the school breakfast program from 35 percent to 52 percent of the entire student body, said Kathy Alexander, director of the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union’s Food Service Cooperative, which helps oversee food service.
Students that are above the income level for the free and reduced-price meal program — part of the USDA’s National Lunch Program — make up the bulk of that increase, said Alexander. But both she and Lorraine Thompson, who manages the Bristol Elementary cafeteria, say the students who usually pay full price for meals may need this free breakfast the most.
“I think a lot of parents are borderline (for low-income meal eligibility), and they have trouble affording that breakfast,” said Thompson.
Families’ inability to pay for school meals hasn’t just left some kids hungry, it’s also cost $33,000 across the six ANeSU schools, said Alexander, who is planning to change the credit system next year. She said part of that cost comes from students who can’t pay 40 cents for a reduced-priced lunch and the other part comes from students who are barely over the income eligibility level for the school meal program — therefore generating no subsidy.
Meanwhile, education leaders across the state say child hunger is an issue they are grappling with.
“After weekends, I have students say, ‘I haven’t had much to eat all weekend,’” said Thompson. “I know (hunger is) an issue with a lot of families. The kids just don’t have the food or the parents aren’t there.”
Bristol Elementary principal Catrina DiNapoli thinks the community and school owe it to their children to make sure they eat.
“I think our community has a responsibility to make sure that kids are fed,” she said. “If that means that the 175 days a year that they’re with us we accrue that responsibility, I think we should take it seriously and have the support of the town.”
Provision Two is not a suitable program for all schools, said Laurie Colgan, director of child nutrition for the Vermont Department of Education. Since schools don’t generate meal revenues from students who pay for full-price meals, the program only works well with schools that serve a large ratio of free and reduce-priced meals, which are federally reimbursed at a much higher rate.
Alexander thinks the program is a good fit for Bristol because, as of February, more than 50 percent of the school’s students were eligible for free and reduced-priced meals. The same is true of Starksboro’s Robinson Elementary School, which marks the first time a majority of students at either school has been eligible for the program.
Here’s how Provision Two works:
The USDA reimburses schools for every breakfast they serve, at a rate of:
• $1.51 for free breakfasts.
• $1.21 for reduced-priced breakfasts, plus an additional 30 cents that the state kicks in to make all breakfasts free for qualifying families.
• 27 cents for full-price breakfasts.
In the first year of the program — this year for Bristol — a school establishes a baseline percentage for each month. So if 80 percent of Bristol students who ate breakfast in September 2011 were on the free meal program, then for September 2012 — and for Septembers to follow — the school will be reimbursed at a rate of $1.51 for 80 percent of the students that participate in that given month.
That number will vary depending on the total number of students participating, but that ratio will stay fixed. Alexander said Bristol’s ratio of participating students who receive free and reduced-price meals is steady at around 65-70 percent.
Another touted benefit of the program is that it allows staff to focus more on meals, rather than dealing with administrative paperwork for keeping track of different student lunches.
In its first year, Alexander said, this program is paying off for Bristol.
“We are not making money by any means, but we are coming closer to meeting cost with Provision Two,” she said. “And I think that can get better as we go forward.”
Provision Two’s reach in Vermont isn’t limited to Addison County. A number of schools in the Burlington and St. Johnsbury areas also participate in the program. There’s a lunch component too, where all students get free lunch.
Alexander doesn’t think ANeSU schools will be ready for that program any time soon — the costs of lunch are just too high. But she does have some other coals in the fire, like a grant that funds fresh fruits and vegetables in ANeSU schools, and USDA assistance for youth summer programs.
THE POWER OF BREAKFAST
The number of students participating in the free and reduced-price meal program has skyrocketed in the last decade, which means that the Provision Two breakfast program might become more commonplace (see part one of this series on addisonindependent.com to learn about this trend).
If the DOE’s Laurie Colgan has anything to say about it, the program probably will catch on.
“We’re seeing an increasing number of schools that are exceeding the 50 percent free and reduced level,” she said. “From an educational perspective, we know that schools that provide breakfast and schools that consume breakfast actually have students that are more prepared and ready to learn because they have the energy and sustenance to keep them going until lunchtime.”
Betsy Synott, a Bristol kindergarten teacher, has noticed a clear difference: More of her students are eating breakfast and their performance is better.
“When kids haven’t had breakfast, you can see them plummet an hour or so later,” she said. “It’s hard. I mean, think of yourself not eating in the morning.”
Bristol’s kindergarten classes are also part of another pilot project. Their breakfast is delivered to their room every morning. Alexander said this has greatly increased participation and is what many consider the “gold standard” of school breakfast.
On a “local foods Monday morning” last week, Bristol students munched through apples, bagels from the Bristol Bakery, yogurt and granola. To wash it all down, they had some milk on the side. Every kindergarten student that spoke to the Independentsaid they thought breakfast was important.
When asked why, Kyle Vincent responded, “Because you have more energy.”
For McKayla Jackman, it’s even simpler than that.
“It makes me feel better,” she said.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]