ST. ALBANS — Thanks to the help of Shaw’s customers at 19 locations in Vermont, Hunger Free Vermont received over $59,000 in donations from the Nourishing Neighbors fundraising campaign to provide universal meals to every public school throughout the state.
“Because of the pandemic, schools across Vermont are operating on a universal meals model using the summer meals program (funding),” said Becca Mitchell, child nutrition initiatives manager for Hunger Free Vermont. “This way, meals are available to all kids, meeting them where they are. Pre-pandemic, Hunger Free VT had a lot of interest in expanding the school lunch program.”
Four years in a row, Nourishing Neighbors has asked Shaw’s customers at the checkout line whether they would like to donate a sum of money to end hunger in Vermont, according to Monica Taylor, development director of Hunger Free Vermont.
And this year, shoppers delivered.
“This is a completely unprecedented amount of money...from shoppers going through the checkout line,” Taylor said.
The pandemic made remote learning a reality for many students. Hunger Free Vermont assisted many of the school districts in the state by supporting access to transportation for meals, access to meal sites, and scheduling and pickup at schools and community locations, according to officials from the organization.
And experts say that without good, nutritious, healthy food on a regular schedule, kids simply cannot learn or attend school.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in need because we are providing bulk meal boxes to students and families,” said Nina Hansen, vice president of operations at the Abbey Group, which services the Maple Run Unified School District.
“Any child who wants to have access to these meals has access,” Hansen said. “Some are individualized meals, peanut butter and a loaf of bread or macaroni and cheese.”
Hansen said the meal boxes have filled the void left by income and exacerbated by grocery bills since some students simply cannot attend school in person, which is where some receive the majority of their food every day.
But with the help of Hunger Free Vermont and other organizations, schools have been able to switch to summer or vacation meals for students ahead of schedule.
“It’s obvious to me that when we are not in school, there is a great need,” Hansen said. “Now, it’s 24/7. Any child or parent who needs food can call a district school.”
BFA St. Albans Principal Brett Blanchard on Thursday expressed sincere gratitude, and acknowledged that staff and organizations throughout the state were going above and beyond to make sure their community remained healthy, safe and well-fed.
“What we know unequivocally is that diet influences brain development and a student’s ability to accomplish tasks,” Blanchard said.
Hansen and Mitchell agreed that the resources currently available to them should be available to school districts 100% of the time, and that removing the stigma around receiving free food and meals was necessary to ensure everyone had every chance to succeed.
“The generosity (of the Shaws customers) says something about the Vermont culture,” Mitchell said.
Before the pandemic hit, Mitchell said the breakfast programs throughout the state had much lower participation rates due to the fact that the breakfasts were technically served before school began in the mornings, when students could arrive to school and spend time at their lockers or talking to friends.
Public school nutrition programs are largely funded through per-plate reimbursement programs through the federal government, and the pandemic has created increased need for all supplies, including boxes of healthy food for students and families.
The more meals a community is able to serve, Mitchell said, the more money they are reimbursed with from the federal government, which in turn creates more opportunity for more meals to be served.
“Our number one goal vision is for the entire team at Hunger Free Vermont to find a long-term solution,” Mitchell said. “Free meals for all kids, regardless of income. To extend this temporary model that is in place now.
“Vermont, compared to other states in the country is a leader in our mission, but we’re still only feeding ¼-⅓ of Vermont’s kids. We’re doing well, but it’s not good enough.”
Mitchell said Hunger Free Vermont hopes a bill will be passed soon to ensure universal meals for all students, regardless of whether they attend school in-person or otherwise.
“This support helps us ensure that children in Vermont will be able to eat a healthy breakfast so they feel good, and can make the most of their academic day,” said Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont. “Our pride and gratitude for being a part of this recipient group is made even greater knowing that these funds were raised during the pandemic crisis, and we are truly thankful to Shaw’s and their customers for helping us continue to make a difference in the lives of Vermont children.”