4.7.2017 – Farm-to-Plate Update and Regenerative Agriculture

This week we were back to the routine of more time in our committee rooms taking testimony on Senate bills. We received two bills from the Senate Agriculture Committee, one of which is S.33, an act relating to the Rozo McLaughlin Farm-to-School Program.

The purpose of S.33 is to make changes to the Farm-to-School (F2S) program, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Since its beginning, F2S has been awarding grants to schools that have applied for and been successful in the grant-making process. Historically, there have been two types of grants – planning and implementation; S.33 would offer a third type of grant to “help fund technical assistance or support strategies to increase participation in federal child nutrition programs that increase viability of sustainable meal programs”.

This third grant would help support the move toward universal meals programs in more of Vermont’s schools. Currently, there are five schools participating in the universal meals pilot project with very positive results. Federal child nutrition programs are available for schools when 40% of their students qualify for free and reduced lunch. If a school qualifies, those eligible for the program eat at no cost to them, which reduces the stigma that some students experience. We were told that in, some cases, children who qualify for reduced lunch avoid eating due to embarrassment, go hungry, and don’t learn as well as they could had they eaten.

Last year, more than thirteen million school meals were eaten in the state of Vermont, including breakfast, lunch, and, in some cases, dinner. At this time, 13,800 Vermont students have access to universal school meals. Meals served to those students are “reimbursable” and the school where the program exists receives a cash reimbursement from the federal and state governments.

Low-income students, those in families living at 185% of the federal poverty level (FPL), do not pay for their meals. Checking the internet and doing a little math, 185% of FPL for a family of four is $45,510. This number may not be exactly correct but gives you a ballpark idea. Higher income students pay an out-of-pocket “paid” rate but the school still receives some reimbursement for their meals as well. Additionally, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides thirty-two cents worth of American-grown foods for each reimbursable meal served, though there are strict regulations about what makes a meal reimbursable.

Part of our discussion concerned the fact that families should be eating meals, especially breakfast and dinner together. Some of us agreed that that would be nice but not necessarily realistic as parents rush off to work in the morning. If children are able to eat breakfast before they leave for school, that’s great, but it’s better to make sure they are well-nourished so they can do their best work at school and maximize the money we spend on education.

What have we learned from the schools with the pilot Universal School Meals programs? Student participation in school meals has increased an average of 10% in schools providing universal meals and in some schools the increase has been more than 40%. Principals report less absenteeism, fewer behavior referrals and school nurse visits, and improved test scores. Meal program finances have improved and all of the school principals and food service managers reported that the worst part of their job had been eliminated – trying to collect unpaid meal debt from parents.

S.33 expands participation in the F2S program to “registered or licensed child care providers that are developing Farm-to-School connections and education that indicate a willingness to make changes to their school or child care nutrition programs that increase student access and participation and that are making progress toward the implementation of the Vermont School Wellness Policy Guidelines”.

The bill also expands professional development opportunities to public school and child care personnel regarding procuring, processing, and serving locally grown foods with special attention given to federal procurement program requirements.

Currently, schools are required to solicit bids for costs exceeding $15,000. A public process is necessary, which can take time. This is prudent for construction, supplies, repairs, and transportation purposes. S.33 allows for that amount to be raised to $25,000 for purchases made from the nonprofit school food service account given the time factor and seasonal nature of local food purchases. Municipalities would still have the right to set a lower threshold if they so desired.

This expansion of the Farm to School program is a positive step and should have been done last year but for the shenanigans at the end of the Session. Last year, two very worthy, well-vetted bills died because of political gamesmanship. This year, both bills, S.33 and H.218, an act relating to adequate shelter for dogs and cats, are back and ready for action. It is hoped that that same fate will not reoccur.

Another bill that many folks are interested in is H.430, an act relating to establishing a regenerative agriculture program. Regenerative agriculture is centered on soil health and all the benefits that can result including carbon sequestration and water quality improvements. The bill would establish a regenerative agriculture program in the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM) and create a position of Director of Regenerative Agriculture. A certification program would be established and a fee charged and collected in the also created Vermont Regenerative Agriculture Program Fund, which would be used to pay the Director and AAFM staff.

We did hear about the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program, which is a pilot program already in place that seems to have some of the same goals as what H.430 envisions. Given that the governor has decreed that there should be no new or increased fees, and that in the budget process AAFM did not get two asked-for positions for water quality, the chance of getting H.430 through the process this year are slim. It is an opportunity, however, to talk about the topics of soil health and regenerative practices, and to draw attention to the issue.