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Notes from a Legislator: Universal School Meals Policy Supports Students and Farmers in Vermont

“[When it comes to working on Universal School Meals Policy] I encourage legislators to follow the data and lead with our values on this. Food is the most elemental ingredient in successful learning, and we have to make sure it isn’t treated any differently than all of the other tools we provide during the school day.” 

— Vermont Representative Mike Rice


As schools across the country closed for pandemic lockdowns in the spring of 2020, students lost access to school meals, a critical source of nutritious food for many. In the first year of the pandemic, one in seven households with children could not afford adequate food. In response, the federal government provided funding so that schools could provide free meals to all children through June 2022. Temporary universal school meals became a lifeline for many students and families, especially in rural states like Vermont, where there were few other resources. When the federal program ended, Vermont was one of many states that looked to fill in the gap and continue providing students with free school meals. 

In the 2023 session, freshman Vermont Representative Mike Rice, a member of the House Agriculture, Food Resiliency, and Forestry Committee and of the legislature’s LGBTQ+ Rainbow Caucus, worked on the state’s Universal School Meals bill (HB165)

In an interview with SiX, Representative Rice tells us that he requested to be on the Agriculture Committee so that he could work on policies like HB165 that impact all Vermonters, including students, small farmers, and rural communities. 


The below interview was conducted by email and has been shortened and condensed for clarity. 



SiX Ag: Why did you request to be on the House Agriculture committee and how do you see the committee playing an important role in creating effective policies for all Vermonters, not just those in the agricultural sector?  

Rep. Rice: The Committee underwent a shift in jurisdiction this year, adding Food Resiliency to its title and charge. (It is now the Agriculture, Food Resiliency & Forestry Committee.) That addition, as well as other new jurisdictional language naming climate change mitigation and adaptation as objectives under our purview, really encouraged me and got me excited about the assignment going into the session to see what we can do as policymakers to build resilient local food systems and encourage methods of farming that responsibly steward land in the face of the climate crisis.


SiX Ag: What is the context for HB165? Why did the legislature pick up this issue now? 

Rep. Rice: Universal school meals have been a reality in Vermont for the past three years. For two years during the height of the pandemic, federal funding covered the cost. For the current school year, one-time state funding was authorized by the legislature in 2022. After seeing the results, we simply could not return to a system that let families remain food insecure. With universal school meals, we saw increased participation in both breakfast and lunch across the state, improved student mental health and readiness to learn, and an increase in family food security. There was no longer a stigma separating kids in the cafeteria, and school principals didn’t have to act as debt collectors. The program also supported a huge number of families that fall in the middle – those who don’t qualify for federal free and reduced lunch programs but are struggling to remain food secure.


SiX Ag: In what ways does HB165/Universal School Meals support Vermont’s farmers and food systems? 

Rep. Rice: We heard from school nutrition directors that the increased participation in school meals alone has led to an increased ability to shift school food purchasing to local sources. Between the increased number of meals served, the increased meal service predictability for planning purposes, and the decrease in administrative time spent on charging for meals and collecting debt from families, school food programs are already in a better position to focus on local purchasing and farm-to-school initiatives. 

To leverage that improvement, we also tied universal school meals to the continuation and expansion of local food purchasing incentive grant programs for schools. HB165 included an expansion of Vermont’s Local Foods Incentive Grant Program, which offers tiered grants to school food authorities based on thresholds of local food procurement as a percentage of their overall school food budget. We included language to ensure that every school in the state that participates in the universal school meals program (i.e., all public schools, plus the many independent schools that participate in federal school nutrition programs) also qualifies to participate in this grant program – and that means more communities across Vermont where schools can pass funds directly on to local farmers, keeping more dollars in our local food system and creating new, reliable markets for a diverse array of Vermont farmers.


SiX Ag: What were some of the challenges in working on HB165? 

Rep. Rice: Whenever a program has previously been funded by federal or one-time funds, and we seek to make it permanent and base-funded, there are challenges. We worked alongside advocates and with the data on our side to make the argument that maintaining universal school meals was an investment Vermont couldn’t afford not to make.


SiX Ag: Were there any surprises when working on this bill? 

Rep. Rice: In the end, despite the predictable criticism and opposition, the bill passed with over 80% of House members voting in support, including Democrats, Republicans, Progressives, and Independents. While the criticism of the bill came from familiar quarters, the coalition that came together to support the legislation was powerful. I’m also inspired by the renewed and expanding conversations around farm-to-school initiatives that have come about as a result of our work on this bill. There is a coalition of legislators ready to dig in and take on the hard work of truly integrating the classroom, the cafeteria, and the community to build deeper and more comprehensive farm-to-school connections moving forward.


SiX Ag: Do you have any advice for state legislators interested in working on policies similar to HB165?

Rep. Rice: We’re leveraging federal funding so that the program comes at the most reasonable cost to state taxpayers as possible. Our bill requires school food authorities to participate in the federal provision that will draw down the most possible federal funds for any given school food program, thereby expanding the impact. I also encourage legislators to follow the data and lead with our values on this. Food is the most elemental ingredient in successful learning, and we have to make sure it isn’t treated any differently than all of the other tools we provide during the school day. 

Additionally, be sure to hear from the folks on the ground. As we worked on this bill, we heard from students, parents, teachers, administrators, school nurses, food service directors, school nutritionists, local farmers, and community food access advocates, and it was unanimous: universal school meals positively impact the health, behavior, nutrition, and education outcomes for our students and they are a win for our families, our schools, our farms, and our communities.


Update: As of June 8, 2023, HB 165 has been delivered to the Governor for signing. 



If you are a state legislator interested in working on similar policies, reach out to us at [email protected]; we’re here to help. 

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