The 'Missing Middle': How To Feed America's Neglected Kids At School

Vermont state Sen. Brian Campion shares the upsetting testimonials that prompted his state to pass a bill that feeds kids and develops the local economy, too.

In this edition of Voices In Food, Vermont state Sen. Brian Campion (D) shares how he helped guarantee that his state’s schoolchildren all have access to local, fresh foods for the 2022-23 school year through a one-year pilot project meant to extend the federal government’s COVID-relief programs. Campion’s take shows how granting this kind of access to healthy food helps the “missing middle” (families that don’t qualify for federal free and reduced-price school lunches, but are still experiencing food insecurity).

One of the things that people always ask when weighing legislation is where do you want to put your first dollar? We know that Vermont’s lowest-income students qualify for free and reduced lunch, a federal program. We knew that these kids would be covered no matter what. So the question was asked: Do we really need to set aside taxpayer dollars to pay for middle- and upper-middle-class kids whose families can afford food? This was a big question for lawmakers, myself included.

During COVID, Vermont received federal money to make certain that kids had access to food, because people were rightfully concerned that given everything going on, there would be some families unable to get meals. Then, last year, a bill was drafted that guaranteed that breakfast and lunch would be available to all students every day in our schools. This was easy when the federal government was giving us the money, but there grew a movement in Vermont that wanted to continue on our own once the federal funds dried up. It was interesting to see. It was expensive, but there was also no question that access to food is an issue for kids in our schools.

“Something really compelling to me is that the bill includes that a percentage of these foods have to come from local farms. So now, it’s not just about feeding kids. It’s an economic development bill, too.”

- Vermont state Sen. Brian Campion (D)

And this is where testimony comes in. We took a lot of testimony in committee, and more and more we heard that there really is this “missing middle.” There are families that don’t qualify to receive free and reduced lunch, but they still need support. Their kids need support. There need to be options.

HungerFreeVT supplied the data and helped us see how it backed the testimony. They know the data, but also see Vermonters’ food insecurity each day. I sat in that committee as the chair, and at first I just wasn’t sure this was going to make it. But, thanks to meaningful stories and data we could understand, it left my committee unanimous. Then, in the end on the floor, it wasn’t a roll-call vote. It was obvious when the “ayes” were called.

One of the stories that kept coming up that was a game changer was that food was causing a disconnect in relationships between school and home. Kids would rack up bills at school because they couldn’t pay for their meals. But mom and dad also couldn’t pay them. These families sort of disappear. They’re less engaged with the school community. They don’t answer the phone when the school calls because they just can’t pay the bill.

That’s hard. We don’t want kids to experience those kinds of things ever in Vermont. We want to make certain that kids are going to school and able to eat nutritious foods. But the other question remains: Where are you going to put that first dollar? There are a lot of competing interests out there. But it was that testimony that really got me.

Once we were able to see that qualifying for free and reduced lunch doesn’t solve the problem of children in schools experiencing hunger, we were able to recognize other advantages of a bill like this.

Something really compelling to me is that the bill includes that a percentage of these foods have to come from local farms. So now, it’s not just about feeding kids. It’s an economic development bill, too.

We are a farming state. In addition to generational farmers who are here, we’re seeing more and more young farmers coming into the state who want to farm. Farmers need a level of predictability and knowing that you’re going to be able to supply local schools with certain amounts of carrots, a certain amount of milk, that’s really good economic development. It’s good for the farmer and, as we all know, it’s really good for the kids.

While the bill has a percentage built in, there’s also an incremental increase so that we’re getting kids fresher, more local foods. We want to get everything locally: produce, dairy, meat. Of course, we’re constantly looking at the definition of local, being certain that local doesn’t mean out of state. We want farmers to come here, so that’s something that we need to better define. We want, down the road, to get to 100%, so it’s also a climate bill in addition to one about kids having access to good food, and economic development.

“There really is this 'missing middle.' There are families that don’t qualify to receive free and reduced lunch, but they still need support. Their kids need support. There need to be options.”

- State Sen. Brian Campion

And while it’s not in the bill, we’re hearing stories of what professionals in schools are doing around teaching about foods. They’re talking about putting many colors on the plate. They’re teaching kids about cooking and trying new things. It’s really exciting and dynamic.

So we’ve passed a bill that addresses hunger. And economic development. And climate.

What we have passed, though, is not universal school meals forever ― we had a surplus of dollars that we set aside to use for this coming academic year. It keeps the meal program going because we know COVID hasn’t ended. Pressures on families have not ended. And this missing middle is out there. The next year will allow us to see what this actually costs. It’s a pilot program that allows us to see what we need to make it full time. What does it cost to allow kids to eat a healthy, fresh breakfast and lunch at school?

Beyond helping alleviate food insecurity, provide economic development and help reduce carbon emotions, this bill also gets rid of one of many stigmas kids face. There’s enough stigma-related things in school. Sneakers, clothes, all that kind of stuff — let’s get rid of this one. Let’s get rid of the cash here. Let kids go and have access without even thinking about it.

Every community throughout the United States has people who need more access to food. Vermont is not unique. It’s easy for folks to go through life caught up in their world, their priorities. They have jobs and kids and interests. But when you really knock on doors, it’s not long before you realize again that great inequity out there.

For other places that are considering extending access to food and wondering how to get over the hurdle of adding access for families that don’t qualify for free and reduced lunch, I think they should start talking to people. They should remember it’s not just a bill about kids and food. It’s climate. It’s economic development. You may think a bill about putting money towards people who already have it won’t pass, but get to the stories of those who are in that “missing middle.” Talk to the farmers who need predictability.

If you listen to the testimony that we heard, it’s powerful. In the legislative process you learn from taking testimony that you always have to be ready to change your mind. So, when it comes to a bill like this, talk to people. Talk to families. Talk to the person at the register who takes money from kids. They are the person who really sees it. Ask the teachers, who will tell you that they keep extra food in their drawers and are putting it in kids’ backpacks.

This is the United States of America. Kids should not be anxious — nor should their parents be — about having access to good nutritious food.

Again, everybody asks is this where we should put our first dollar, given we have a lot of pressing issues in this state. I think this one-year pilot will tell us a lot because it’s about so much more than food.

Campion’s comments have been condensed and lightly edited.

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