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School district hopes to offer free summer meals – K-8 food programs unified

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

The Champlain Valley School District has never operated a summer food distribution program, but as with nearly everything in 2020, this year is different.

The district has already begun what resembles a summer food program this spring, as schools have been closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. School breakfast and lunch programs have morphed into meal pickup operations outside of four school buildings, including Williston Central.

Food Service Director Scott Wagner, newly promoted to the unified director overseeing all of the district’s K-8 school food programs, hopes to continue curbside pickup — and some home delivery — of meals throughout the summer.

Other Vermont school districts provide free summer meals to children, no questions asked. The Champlain Valley School District has not been eligible for federal funding to run a summer program because of its relatively low rate (13 percent) of low-income families, Wagner said.

But the Vermont Agency of Education applied last week to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to waive the income requirements of summer food programs and fund them as a pandemic response. If the waiver is granted, Wagner plans to implement free summer food distribution, with pickup sites in Williston, Charlotte, Shelburne, Hinesburg and St. George.

“We are hoping that will happen,” he said. “We really want to feed people if they need it.”

The current meal pickup program feeds about 500 people each day district-wide, Wagner said. He expects participation to wane in the summer as some kids attend camps and the economy loosens up. Still, he believes a school-based summer food program would be worthwhile.

“There might not be as big of a need, but we don’t know,” Wagner said. “We just want to make sure we are taking care of people in our community.”

Without the federal waiver, the school’s food service team will still work against hunger in the community this summer, perhaps working with local food banks to order and prepare meals.

Wagner, who has been with the Williston schools food program since 2008, starts this summer overseeing food service at all of the district’s five K-8 schools. The promotion was made possible by the 2016 unification of districts that now make up the Champlain Valley School District.

“We are operating much more as a single K-8 team so it makes sense to have one person leading that group,” said district Chief Operations Officer Jeanne Jensen. “Scott has been doing really well in Williston, and he accepted the challenge to take that on.”

Wagner’s new role will lead to bulk ordering, aligned staff training and a unified vision across food service programs at schools in Charlotte, Shelburne, Hinesburg and Williston. The unification started last year with a merging of the daily K-8 menu.

The job will take Wagner away from Williston’s day-to-day operations at times.

“I have a great staff here (in Williston) so if I’m out of the building, they can handle it,” he said. “There will definitely be some efficiencies. We will work hard to have similar attitudes about food quality and customer service.”

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