Attempt to pass Ellison’s free lunch bill fails in the House again with amendment

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 05-23-2024 3:36 PM

Friends of late Rep. Art Ellison are trying to bring forward his dying wish – to “feed the damn kids” – by expanding access to free and reduced lunch in New Hampshire. But the latest attempt to do so, by passing an amendment that would have increased eligibility, failed on the House floor on Thursday.

As an add-on to a Senate Bill to repair the teaching kitchen at the Wilbur H. Palmer Regional Career and Technical Education Center in Hudson, Rep. Muriel Hall, a Bow Democrat, presented a floor amendment to increase free and reduced school lunch availability to 350 percent of the federal poverty level.

The proposal came before the House twice this session, with the body initially supporting the bill before voting it down in April – as Ellison’s family watched from the House gallery.

Expanding access to school meals had been a longtime goal of Ellison’s, as he sponsored several attempts to do so in his three terms in the House.

The federal free and reduced lunch program reimburses schools to provide food for families who earn up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Hall’s proposal would have nearly doubled that eligibility, with a state reimbursement program from the education trust fund.

For a family of four, that is an annual household income of $105,000.

“School meals are as essential to education as busses, books, computers, or the internet,” she said. “Yet kids’ access to those meals has been curtailed while many families struggle to pay the bills including dealing with the rising cost of putting food on the table.”

But to Rick Ladd, a Haverhill Republican and chair of the House Education Committee, expanding eligibility provides an unfunded mandate to school districts.

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“The local state taxpayer is going to have to pick up this burden,” he said. “We are going to have to cough up that money.”

The Department of Education provided an estimated cost of $50 to $75 million per year based on student enrollment numbers and estimates of the percentage of those who are eligible.

But Rep. Steven Woodcock, a Center Conway Democrat, refutes this number.

Maine’s universal free lunch program had an estimated cost of $34 million when lawmakers passed a bill to establish the program full-time after the pandemic. Massachusetts and Vermont both offer free meals to all students as well.

“Please press the green button so that we can get on with the business that my good friend Art Ellison used to say and just feed the damn kids,” he said.

The House voted down the amendment 177 to 185 along party lines. The original bill, to replace the ventilation and exhaust fan system in the kitchen passed on a voice vote.