MONTPELIER, Vt. (WFFF) — Vermonters are working to make free, universal school meals permanent in the state.

“It’s just a basic equity issue when it comes to education,” says Teddy Waszazak, campaign manager with Hunger-Free Vermont. “Kids cannot learn well if they cannot eat well.”

During the pandemic, the need for universal school meals grew, prompting the USDA to issue temporary waivers for free breakfast and lunch regardless of families’ incomes. But Waszazak says these waivers are set to expire at the end of the school year. “The campaign is advocating to make the universal school meal system permanent in Vermont,” he says.

Since 2011, he and his colleagues have tried to make universal school meals the norm in Vermont. Last year, their bill made it through the Senate. In January, they plan to meet with lawmakers again to get it passed.

“I remember as a kid buying lunch tickets, and ‘Did I bring my money?'” said Burlington resident Jessica Savage. “And, ‘Oh shoot, I didn’t!'”

Savage is a mother of two young children. She says she’s glad to see her daughter’s school work to reduce the stigma around school meals. “It’s part of what being in the classroom is for these children, she says. “My kid especially, she needs that in order to focus on anything.”

Wazazak says he remembers the challenges he faced at lunchtime and is determined to change that narrative for Vermont’s students. “I’ve been on my own since I was 15. I often did not eat in school because I didn’t have parents to fill out the paperwork and could not afford to buy the meals on my own,” he says. “We need to be providing for them, because I know personally what it’s like to have to go without those things, and then also be expected to perform well in school. And it’s frankly impossible.”

He encourages Vermonters to get involved in the campaign and sign the support card.