For the last two years, at least one thing in Vermont’s K-12 schools has been a welcome constant: Every single child eats for free.

A pandemic-era waiver from the federal government has paid for universal school meals across the country since 2020. But federal funding is set to expire in June, and anti-hunger advocates are now renewing their push to get lawmakers to make free meals permanent in Vermont, no matter what the feds do.

The House Education Committee on Thursday listened to hours of testimony from supporters of S.100, who argued that the pre-pandemic system of subsidized lunches left too many children to fall through the cracks and created a stigmatizing experience.

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At one point, one of the committee’s own members, Rep. Terri Lynn Williams, R-Granby, offered a brief but emotional reflection on her own experience.

“I just want to say that the last hour — this testimony has been about me. The life I lived. And all of these testimonies have brought me right back to when I was a kid, going through all that same stuff. And it never goes away,” Williams said, breaking into tears. “It makes you stronger. It makes you realize what the world is like around you. But it never goes away. I just want to say that.”

Last year, state lawmakers first took up the question of whether — and how — to pay for universal meals if and when the federal government decided to stop picking up the tab. But they effectively put those debates on pause when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced, in the waning days of the 2021 legislative session, that it would extend universal meal funding through the 2021-22 school year. (Lawmakers did, however, pass a bill that required state officials to report back with ideas for funding universal meals.)

There was widespread expectation among anti-hunger and nutrition advocates nationally that the federal government would extend its waivers yet another year. But that provision was cut amid a breakdown in negotiations over Congress’ latest omnibus spending plan, and states who want to make the popular program permanent face the sudden and vexing question of how to pay for it.

The cost could be steep. Estimates created by legislative analysts last year pegged the annual cost to Vermont between $24 and $40 million. If lawmakers decide to pay for just free breakfast — and not also lunch — as currently contemplated by S.100, the cost would be $8 to $13 million a year. (Advocates are clear they want breakfast and lunch.)

House Education is expected to pick the subject up again next week.

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