ST. ALBANS — The Vermont Agency of Education and Hunger Free Vermont are urging eligible families to sign up for the free school lunch program.

That is something that’s already being done in communities such as St. Albans City and Milton where the impact of providing these meals is seen as a positive benefit.

However, the federal program still could be more helpful in a rural state such as Vermont, say local school officials.

Having a high percentage of students who qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, and a high percentage of those students actually enrolled, can enable schools to qualify for additional programs, such as an after-school snacks, free breakfasts, and free summer lunches, explained Anore Horton, of Hunger Free Vermont.

St. Albans City School has been able to offer free breakfasts to all students because it has so many qualified families signed up for free and reduced lunch, explained Horton.

“Any school can do it, but it’s only financially possible… when you have a high percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch and a high participation rate,” said Horton.

St. Albans City reported an immediate reduction in morning behavioral problems after the school began offering free breakfast to all students.

Milton Town School District wasn’t able to offer free breakfast to all students, but it did extend the time when students can get breakfast in the morning to 9:30. Students either can come in before school starts and eat breakfast, or they can order breakfast and have it delivered to their classroom, explained Steve Marinelli, Milton’s Food Service Manager.

The school’s food service prepares bagged breakfasts that, based on the number of orders received, are delivered to each classroom.

Since expanding the breakfast program the school has seen a decline in behavioral problems. It also had a significant increase in scores on state tests, said Marinelli.

“It’s very dramatic, what meals can do,” said Horton.

National studies have shown that offering free breakfast can reduce absenteeism and improve student learning.

When Proctor expanded its breakfast program the school nurse reported there were 160 fewer visits to her office for morning headaches, stomach aches and other hunger-related problems during the first half of the school year, said Horton.

“You certainly notice on Mondays and after school breaks. They come in and they’re famished,’ said Marinelli.

Expanding breakfast hours was only one part of an effort at Milton to improve the school’s food offerings. The school has shifted away from frozen entrees to fresh food prepared on-site.

“We run a very extensive farm-to-school program,” said Marinelli. At this time of year, the school’s kitchens are serving fresh squash, kale chips, and locally grown potatoes, he said.

Improving the quality of the food led to a 14 percent increase in the number of students eating hot lunches. With the accompanying increase in students enrolled in the free lunch program, Milton was able to qualify for the free summer lunch program.

Communities like Milton, which may have pockets of poverty within a more middle or upper middle class community, don’t generally qualify for the additional programs such as summer lunches, explained Horton.

It’s one of the ways in which the federal program doesn’t serve Vermont well, since poverty in the state is often spread out, not concentrated as it is more urban states, explained Horton.

The recent expiration of an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) increase in food stamp benefits, more formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance

Program (SNAP), has made it even more crucial that students receive needed nutrition at school, Horton suggested.

SNAP benefits now provide just $1.40 per meal per person.

The U.S. House of Representatives also approved extensive cuts to the program, although it is unlikely the Senate will agree to them.

“The child nutrition programs are the last — I hope — untouchable bastion we have against hunger,” said Horton.

To enroll in the program, families can contact their local school. Many schools have the forms available on their Web sites. It can also be found on the Vermont Agency of Education’s Web site (www.education.vt.gov).

Families whose financial situation changes during the school year because of an increase in household size or a loss of income are encourage to contact schools to see if they now qualify for benefits.