ST. JOHNSBURY — U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch stood near the entrance of the St. Johnsbury School on Wednesday to champion a federal plan to feed students for free, no questions asked.

They were joined by Pollaidh Major, a member of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy’s staff; Anore Horton, the executive director for Hunger Free Vermont; and St. Johnsbury School Supt. Brian Ricca.

The delegation made St. Johnsbury their Vermont stop to promote an aspect of the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better legislation that would provide meals to school children throughout the country at no cost and with no means paperwork to determine financial hardship among students.

“It is important that in every school in this country the opportunity exists for kids to get the breakfast they need, to get the lunch they need — good quality food — and to go forward without embarrassment,” said Sen. Sanders. “What a terrible thing for a young child to have to say ‘hey, I guess I’m poor,’ that is just traumatic for a kid.”

Meals are currently available for all students, but the money is tied to COVID federal response funding, which will expire. Passage of the Build Back Better bill would make the universal meals program permanent.

Horton said the St. Johnsbury School was the right place to advocate for the meals for all students provision of Build Back Better because the school and its food services staff have long supported the effort to make meals more accessible among students. Prior to the COVID-response opportunity to feed all students, free meals were provided by determining eligibility based on household income.

Rep. Welch said Vermont’s delegation supports the Build Back Better bill and its provisions that address childhood hunger.

“It became apparent to Bernie, Patrick and I that kids coming to school often do show up hungry and the eligibility you had before where you basically had to fill out a form and then raise your hand that ‘I’m the one who can’t afford breakfast and lunch’ was really getting in the way of kids getting a breakfast or lunch,” he said.

Welch said St. Johnsbury has demonstrated how well a universal school meals program can be in the last 19 months through the COVID-response funding.

“What this program (Build Back Better) does is maintain that eligibility — breakfast, lunch dinner. That is a smart, necessary thing to do,” he said. “Think about a child who shows up hungry at school. What kind of position are they in to do the learning that they have to do?”

Sen. Sanders was asked about the likelihood of the bill’s passage. He said the votes for and against fall along party lines, and success or failure will hinge on whether all the Democrats are on board with the bill.

“We have zero Republicans who are supporting it in the House and in the Senate,” and with just 50 Democrats in the Senate, if only one didn’t offer support “you’d have to go back to the drawing board.”

Supt. Ricca welcomed Sanders and Welch to the school and praised their leadership, saying Vermont’s congressional delegation may be one of the smallest in the country but it’s the “mightiest.”

He calculated the total years of service in Washington for Leahy, Sanders and Welch, at 93 years, remarking that Sen. Leahy started serving “the year I was born in 1974.”

Said Ricca, “We are are very fortunate to have three public servants in the state of Vermont who share the vision and work to make the vision of nutritious school meals a reality.”


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