Vermont businesses should line up for universal school meals

school lunch tray with healthy fresh food

A few years ago, Clean Yield committed to supporting a multiyear campaign led by Hunger Free Vermont to try to make Vermont the first state in the country to feed all kids breakfast and lunch at school every day. We saw it as an opportunity to connect our investments in local food systems and our concern for social justice with our philanthropy. We also saw real benefits in schools and the potential for systems change. Universal school meals have been linked to improved test scores, reduced sick days, decreased bullying incidents, and increased student and parental engagement in schools. They also contribute to a strong local food system and, according to the U.N. World Food Program, can help families out of poverty, end the “hunger cycle,” and narrow the gender gap. We think these reasons are compelling, but if you need more reasons to support this initiative, we offer three more that show why Vermont businesses should line up in support of universal school meals.

  1. Universal school meals help build a more inclusive economy by equalizing the opportunities offered in schools, instead of reinforcing the economic status quo in which income disparity grows. According to a 2017 study, students at schools with free lunches for all had an average of 3% greater lifetime earnings than children at schools without lunch programs.[i] The study found even greater benefits for children from poor households – which improves equality. Research from the Brookings Institution has shown that areas with higher equality of opportunity experience faster economic growth.[ii] The nonprofit Businesses for Social Responsibility sheds light on why this may be: “ … inclusion drives innovation and expands market opportunity, mitigates risks, improves operating environments, and promotes long-term growth and a strong middle class.”[iii] Moving to a universal school meals model presents an opportunity to support economic inclusion and drive sustainable growth in Vermont.
  2. Universal school meals can help support local farmers and strengthen local food systems. According to data collected by Hunger Free Vermont, 64% of the schools currently providing universal school meals report that they have increased their purchasing of local food. This is because most schools that move to a universal school meals model see an improvement in their school meal program finances, which allows them to spend more money on local food. According to the Farm to School Network, “Each dollar invested in farm to school [programs] stimulates $0.60 to $2.16 of local economic activity.”[iv] This increased local purchasing represents an “average 5% increase in income” for farmers and a new long-term revenue stream.[v] Universal school meals can increase the economic resilience of Vermont farmers and the state’s food system.
  3. Universal school meals can promote workforce development by strengthening Vermont’s future workforce and helping to attract and retain workers from afar. Research shows that universal school meals improve academic achievement – which will result in a stronger, better prepared workforce for Vermont businesses. In addition, universal school meals improve academic outcomes, which strengthens schools overall – making them more attractive to workers considering a move to Vermont.


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[v] Ibid.