ADDISON COUNTY — The number of Vermont schoolchildren participating in school breakfast programs is on the rise, but many school administrators and food program directors are finding that federal and state reimbursements for the programs aren’t covering the costs of those initiatives.
On average, almost 15,000 low-income schoolchildren eat a free school breakfast every day in Vermont. That number represents a 15.5 percent increase over last year’s figures, according to the Food Research and Action Center, and marks the largest percent increase in the country.
The news about this uptick, released last week, comes on the heels of a U.S. Department of Agriculture report that one in eight households in Vermont experiences hunger.
Though federal and state reimbursements rarely cover the full cost of providing school breakfast, most local administrators are adamant that the programs are safe, even in an age of sharp spending cuts.
“Do I worry about it?” asked Sanford Bassett, the principal at Vergennes Union Elementary School. “No, and I’ll tell you why. We take care of our kids.”
Around 41 percent of students participate in the school breakfast program at VUES, where Bassett said a “fairly large number” of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals given their family’s incomes.
The food program at the school — including breakfast and lunch both — isn’t self-sustaining, and can’t support itself based solely on the federal and state reimbursements schools receive for each meal served.
Still, Sanford said the meal programs are a priority that the school won’t be looking at cutting any time soon.
“If you want a new Smart Board this year, you can forget it,” he said. “But a child’s breakfast or a child’s lunch is a priority. We will always do what we have to do to fund that. You cut pencils before you cut a kid’s breakfast.”
UPTICK IN PARTICIPATION
Laurie Colgan, the director of Child Nutrition Programs at the state Department of Education, chalks the sharp rise in participation to a measure enacted by the Vermont Legislature in 2008. Under the federal government’s current system, students can qualify for free meals or reduced-price meals based on their family’s income.
For a child from a family of four to qualify for a free meal, his or her family must earn less than $28,665 annually. To qualify for a reduced-price meal, that same family could earn up to $40,793. For each free breakfast, the federal government reimburses the school $1.46. Reduced-price breakfasts earn a federal reimbursement of $1.16, meaning most students are asked to chip in 30 cents for their breakfast.
But the state, in 2008, decided to add an additional subsidy to the mix. Now, in Vermont, students who qualify for both free and reduced-rate lunches can receive a free breakfast. The state reimburses schools for the 30-cent difference.
Colgan is a firm believer in the importance of school breakfast programs.
“Students learn better when they’re well fed and when they’re nourished,” Colgan said. “Teachers and people in schools see a higher rate of attendance … a greater attention span and the ability to focus on the school dance once children have been fed.”
But she admitted that the programs can be expensive, particularly for smaller schools.
“It truly comes down to being an economy of scale,” she said. Delivery costs, lower enrollments, rising energy costs and more expensive healthcare and benefits for food service employees are all pushing the costs of school breakfast and lunch programs up. “We’re finding more and more schools in the state where it’s becoming very challenging for them to cover their program costs.”
Colgan said it was impossible to know whether or not the breakfast reimbursement program the Legislature set up in 2008 will stay on the books; the cost has to be approved each year as part of the Legislature’s state budget.
“We and the advocacy organizations that are concerned about hunger and education will continue to be extremely supportive of the breakfast program,” she said. “Hungry students do not learn.”
Plus, in her opinion, initiatives like school breakfast programs are more important than ever in tough economic times.
“It’s becoming increasingly more challenging for families to meet all of their household needs,” Colgan said. “Often food for the family is one of the things that’s compromised.”
BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS
Local school administrators voice similar support for the programs.
For the first time this year in more than 20 years, Shoreham Elementary School now has a breakfast and lunch program inside of the school. Last year, an employee worked in the kitchen at Bingham Elementary School in Cornwall to prepare Shoreham student lunches, and a few volunteers made bag breakfasts for Shoreham students, but those services went to a much smaller group of students.
Getting the school set up with lunch and breakfast programs of its own was a priority to the Shoreham school board and the community, said Heather Best, the school’s principal.
At Ferrisburgh Central School, participation in the breakfast program has been slowly climbing since Kathy Alexander, the food services manager at the school, started working at the school 10 years ago. Now, participation in the program hovers near 28 percent, up from 10 percent when Alexander arrived. Her goal is to have half of the school’s student population eventually eating breakfast at school.
“We know that breakfast is, in fact, the most important meal of the day for kids,” Alexander said. “If they are expected to be ready mentally to learn and be rigorous, focused learners for an entire day, they need to be nourished. We have a responsibility to ensure that they get this really good start to the day.”
Alexander said the school isn’t trying to take the place of breakfasts at home, if a family prefers that option. But she pointed out that some children aren’t ready to eat a healthy breakfast at 5:30 or 6 a.m. Her program gives students a variety of choices for breakfast. Some eat in the cafeteria after getting off the bus in the mornings, and others order a “breakfast on the go,” which they can collect off of a snack cart around 9:30 a.m. That’s an especially attractive option for a kid who might have “grabbed a piece of toast in the morning,” Alexander said, but is distracted by a grumbling stomach a few hours later.
About three-quarters of the students who eat breakfast at the school every day qualify for a free breakfast. For each free breakfast the school serves, Alexander’s program is reimbursed $1.46 from the government.
She doesn’t think that covers the actual cost of the food; depending on what the school serves for breakfast each day, she estimated costs per meal run closer to between $1.80 and $2.10.
For breakfast and lunch programs in general, Alexander said it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make ends meet on the federal reimbursement rates alone.
“They don’t cover the cost of meals at all,” she said, though she said she’s grateful for the funds. Especially when a school cafeteria is trying to make healthy food using fresh and, in ideal circumstances, local ingredients, the reimbursements come up short.
“If we try to make them cover the cost of meals, we get inadequate meals. It’s really hard to do both,” Alexander said. “(Luckily) the school boards are very supportive of us doing our best to provide healthy meals first — healthy, fresh and local, in that order. We’re certainly not extravagant. We’re extremely careful, but we have standards.”
Alexander, like Bassett, isn’t especially worried about the breakfast program being cut.
“It would be an incredible step backward if that were to happen,” she said.