When in need, there lay in wait a fleet of angels ready to fly to the nearest grocery store and swarm the peanut butter section for the sake of young tummies everywhere.

They are the lunch ladies, 2020 was their year to shine, and a bill in the state legislature may put what they learned during the pandemic to benefit students.

“We never would have been considered frontline workers but we really are,” said Nina Hansen, vice president of operations for The Abbey Group, a food service company.

“We will always be there if someone is in need of food,” said Tina Bushey, nutrition director for the Missisquoi Valley School District.

This year, the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) ranked Vermont schools’ universal breakfast and lunch program the second most effective and utilized program in the country, behind West Virginia. For every 100 school lunches served in the Green Mountain State, 71.3 students showed up for breakfast.

And a snapshot from FRAC showed that Vermont alone increased the total number of school breakfasts and lunches served in April 2020 when compared to April 2019.

“On an average pre-pandemic school day during the 2019–2020 school year, 55% of low-income children in Vermont participated in the national School Breakfast Program,” a release from Hunger Free Vermont stated.

How the pandemic changed school meals

March 17, 2020 was a monumental day for the lives of school meals organizers like Bushey and Hansen. It was the day their dreams and nightmares manifested: because of the COVID-19 pandemic and school closure, universal free breakfast and lunches for all of their students became the norm.

Currently, families apply for free and reduced lunch and may be given it depending on their household income, which can be a difficult process. Both Hansen and Bushey agreed that convincing family buy-in to the application process brings with it a social stigma that can deter families from getting the food their students need to thrive in school, which can result in rising debt for lunch bills not being paid because there is no money to pay them.

“The students would rather not eat than be embarrassed getting an alternate meal because their lunch bill hasn’t been paid,” Hansen said. “It breaks our heart.”

Rebecca Mitchell, child nutrition initiatives manager at Hunger Free Vermont, said universal meals and the removal of the stigma and qualifications for free and reduced lunch has never been closer.

“There are limitations to the current eligibility threshold,” Mitchell said. “We don’t want that to be a barrier. We know over 40% of students don’t qualify for food assistance programs...That shows you that there’s both need and opportunity.”

“For some families, they might not qualify by one dollar,” Hansen said.

But the onset of COVID-19 provided a grand equalizer, as well as a forced rapid evolution for lunch ladies everywhere, and a sudden transition to universal breakfasts and lunches.

Free food for all

“We are enormous supporters of universal school meals,” Hansen said in a joint interview on Thursday, and Bushey nodded in agreement. “There would be more federal funds available, and we could purchase more local foods and create healthier diets for kids. It removes the stigma of eating school lunch, school meal debt, the drain on resources, communicating with caregivers who can’t afford to pay bills — all of that disappears. We would have a lot more time and money to cook for our students!”

Senate Bill 100, produced by the Committee on Agriculture this year, would require all public schools in Vermont to provide school breakfasts and lunches to all students at no charge, and proposes the creation of incentives for schools to partner with local growers and producers for their materials.

The cost of the meal that isn’t reimbursed through federal or state funds would then be supported by the school districts and ultimately the Education Fund, the bill states.

Meals staff step up

When the call came, Hansen and Bushey assembled their teams — brining in 18-wheel refrigeration trucks, in Bushey’s case — and prepared their meal packages for pickup with gallons of fresh milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, hot meals and sandwiches. They wanted to make sure that even though they couldn’t be with their students, the children of Franklin County would never go hungry.

And they didn’t skip the chicken patties, either.

“We currently do 1,800 breakfasts and 1,800 lunches lately for the food pickup per week,” Bushey said. “(Now) when there are 300 students in the building, we’re serving 220 lunches and 190-200 breakfasts per day.”

In the beginning of the pandemic, schools struggled to place massive orders with their distribution companies for enough food to send home to families, which sometimes arrived to the districts only partially-filled.

That was when lunch ladies took matters into their own hands — and vans. Unwilling to let the lack of supply deter them from providing precious nutrition, they flocked to the Walmarts, Hannafords, Price Choppers and Food Cities to scrounge for whatever replacements they could find.

“We had to go to 10 different stores when we ran out of peanut butter,” Nina said.

“Supervisory unions had to do a milk waiver,” Bushey said. “Almost every school in the state of Vermont needed everything on the same day. It was a struggle, but we got through it.”

Learning how to adjust to packaging and then reusable packaging, site drop-offs, meal reservations and different dietary restrictions for students was a year-long and sometimes harrowing trial run that Hansen and Bushey said prepared them for the possibility of universal breakfasts and lunches in the future.

Because meals are still free and will continue to be through the summer, even though some students are back in the classroom and eating there too, hand-delivered breakfasts and lunches are available to enjoy with their socially-distanced classmates.

“There’s a general sense of togetherness,” Hansen said. “It’s breaking bread together.”

Serving the students their breakfasts in the classroom makes it easier to guarantee that students actually receive their breakfasts, as many choose to spend time with their classmates before their lessons begin instead of eating.

It’s also easier cleanup, but syrup-covered tables be darned, Hansen and Bushey said they can’t wait to see their students back in the lunch lines on pizza day.

“We miss seeing the kids so much!” Hansen said.

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