Lack of paperwork for free lunches could cost N.H. school districts millions

  • Fresh chef salads are prepared in the Concord High School kitchen on Tuesday morning, March 2, 2021. Not only do the food service prepare food for the school, but they prepare both breakfast and lunch deliveries around the entire district. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Carrie Wyatt, a food service worker at Concord High School for 18 years, prepares to put in chicken patties into the oven. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Food service worker Maxine Nolan bundles up breakfast items for delivery at the high school kitchen on Tuesday. The workers not only prepare meals for the school but package up both breakfast and lunch deliveries around the district.

  • Concord High food service worker Amy McClellan carries wrapped food items to be warmed up in the school kitchen on Tuesday morning, March 2, 2021. The workers pack both breakfast and lunch packages to be deliverd around the district as well as making meals for the school. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Concord High food service worker Amy McClellan carries wrapped food items to be warmed up in the school kitchen on Tuesday. The workers pack breakfast and lunch packages to be deliverd around the district as well as making meals for the school. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/2/2021 4:03:44 PM

The kitchen at Concord High School was busy Tuesday morning, as food service workers prepared fresh chef salads, chicken patty sandwiches and cheeseburger sliders. They were simultaneously preparing breakfast and lunch for those in school, as well as packaged meals for remote learners that would be delivered across the district by school bus.

Concord School District has been providing free meals to families across the district during the pandemic, and making extra meals on Fridays to carry families through the weekend. The meals are available to any student, due to a federal area eligibility waiver that permits schools nationwide to give free meals to all students during the COVID-19 pandemic, regardless of whether they filled out the annual Free and Reduced Lunch applications.

But the system has had some unintended consequences. New Hampshire school districts are worried about losing funds for the Free and Reduced Lunch program, as administrators say fewer families are filling out the necessary paperwork, which is still required to determine aid, and is creating a false perception of lower enrollment.

As a result, Concord could lose money next year based on artificially low numbers of how many students receive free and reduced lunches.

“This has huge implications on us, because we don’t have the number of paper or electronic applications,” Murphy said. “We don’t have the same numbers we’ve had in the past, and in fact it does affect our revenues, not only our federal revenues for grants and adequacy money we receive from the state. We are very concerned about that.”

The Merrimack Valley School District, feeling the same pressure, have put out a call to all families, asking them to fill out applications, regardless of whether they plan to take advantage of the reduced meal rates, to help get the numbers back up.

“We’re definitely impacted by it,” said Mark MacLean, superintendent of Merrimack Valley and Andover school districts. “With living and working and parenting in the middle of a pandemic, filling out this application may not have been on the priority list. It is incumbent on schools to remind people, and we understand that.” 

The Merrimack Valley School District went from an average of 618 students enrolled in the Free and Reduced lunch program in 2019-2020 to 349 in 2020-2021 – a 43% drop, according to district data. The neighboring Andover School District’s free and reduced enrollment dropped a whopping 57%, from an average of 102 to 43 eligible students.

MacLean estimates, based on a report the district got from the Department of Education, the enrollment drop could cost Merrimack Valley $485,091 in aid for free and reduced lunch, while Andover could lose $107,275.

“In a small district like Andover, that’s a lot,” MacLean said. “So we sent information out to embolden people to fill out the free and reduced lunch application.”

Back in January, a group of New Hampshire mayors and school board representatives – including Concord Mayor Jim Bouley and School Board president Jim Richards – wrote a letter to Governor Chris Sununu and Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut asking them to take the anticipated shortfalls into account when allocating COVID-19 relief and school adequacy funding. 

Murphy said she has contacted New Hampshire legislators, to advocate for using pre-pandemic enrollment numbers to allocate funding.

A bill along these lines has been filed in the New Hampshire Senate. SB145 would temporarily change the formula for school funding, and require the Department of Education to review both 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 enrollment data, and use whichever number is higher to calculate adequacy and differentiated aid.

The bill is currently in the education committee.

In the meantime, Concord administrators have also been reaching out to families through phone calls and lunch fliers, asking them to fill out the paperwork, according to Murphy.

“We absolutely believe the numbers of lunches and breakfasts we're serving, the numbers are there, we just don’t have the paperwork to support it and the state needs the paperwork,” Murphy said.

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