Program for school meals sees low take-up 

By ETHAN DEWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 10-03-2023 6:19 PM

The program is designed around a simple tradeoff. A public school with a sufficient percentage of low-income students agrees to provide free school meals for all students. In return it receives additional funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Schools receive more money, and parents and students avoid the stigma of applying for free or reduced-price school lunches. 

But in New Hampshire, the take-up of the program has been low. This school year, the state had just two schools out of 20 eligible participate in the federal program, known as the Community Eligibility Provision, according to numbers from the state’s Department of Education. And some anti-hunger advocates say that without additional state support, many schools are not able to afford it.

Last month, the USDA said it would expand the program by lowering the threshold for schools to participate, a move the agency said would open the doors to 3,000 more schools across the country providing universal school meals. 

Previously, school districts were required to show that 40 percent or more of their students were enrolled in federal low-income programs to take part. Now, that threshold has been reduced to 25 percent. Because of that change, New Hampshire now has a total of 85 schools eligible for the federal program. 

But few schools have applied so far, and advocates say the expansion, on its own, will likely not change things. Only Bluff Elementary School in Claremont and Winchester School in Winchester currently participate, according to the Department of Education. 

“The reason that other schools don’t participate is basically that it’s financially and administratively difficult for them to do it,” said Laura Milliken, executive director at New Hampshire Hunger Solutions, a nonprofit advocacy organization. 

The problems stem from the way the federal program is set up, Milliken said: While the program is designed to help schools provide free meals, the actual funding disbursed to each often does not actually cover the cost.

Currently most public schools provide free meals for students whose families are making up to 135 percent of the federal poverty level – or $39,900 for a family of four – and provide reduced-price meals of 40 cents each for families making up to 185 percent, or $55,500 for a family of four. Every student at an income level above 185 percent pays the full price per meal. The schools are reimbursed by the USDA for the difference in cost for the free and reduced-price meals, but not the full-price meals.

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The Community Eligibility Provision program allows qualifying schools to receive a certain amount of additional funding, but the money is not designed to cover the free meals program entirely. Instead, it is distributed based on the proportion of students who are low-income. Schools that have lower proportions of lower-income students will receive less through the program, and those schools will need to tap into more of their own budgets in order to make the meals universally free. 

For schools with certain populations, it costs more to participate in the federal program than to not participate in it at all, Milliken said. 

The USDA says the program will help families by lowering their food costs, providing their children nutritious meals, and reducing the stigma that often accompanies the need to fill out forms to access free or reduced-price meals. And the agency said it would help to eliminate school lunch debt for families and give schools a steady revenue stream.

“Healthy school meals are an essential part of the school environment – just like teachers, classrooms, and books – and set kids up for success and better health,” said Stacy Dean, the USDA deputy under secretary for the Office of Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, in a statement. “More children are fueled for learning and development when they can count on tasty, nutritious meals at school.”

Dean called the new eligibility levels – which were passed through a federal rule change that took effect Sept. 26 – a “significant step” toward providing healthy meals to every student in schools. 

But Milliken argues that while more New Hampshire schools can now participate, the funding formula means that those newly eligible schools, which will have smaller proportions of lower-income students, will receive less funding. That could deter those schools from actually taking up the new funding, she said. 

She noted that many of those schools have high levels of school meal debt. 

“There’s an argument that they’re paying for it either way,” she said, referring to the schools. “And wouldn’t it be great to end the stigma that is associated with school meals and be sure that all kids have an equal chance to thrive and be healthy?”

And Milliken says that schools that adopt universal school meal programs can end up saving money in the long run.

“There really are economies of scale in school meals,” she said. “So having more kids participate in the program makes the program more financially viable.”

To address the hesitance, Milliken and New Hampshire Hunger Solutions are pressing lawmakers to consider state funding to backfill the shortfalls for any of the 85 eligible New Hampshire schools seeking to participate in the program. The organization will press for that to be included in a broad anti-hunger bill set to be introduced in the 2024 legislative session, Milliken said.

Milliken and others will also push for a mechanism to address a potential side effect of the federal program: If schools adopt universal school meals, they may lose out on state adequacy funding, a portion of which is determined by the number of students they have receiving free or reduced-price meals.

For New Hampshire Hunger Solutions, the move is a political compromise. Funding the 85 eligible schools would be far from universal; the state has 456 public schools in total. Eight states, including Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont, have passed laws allowing any school to engage in the universal school meal program, according to the USDA.

But Milliken argues providing state funding to supplement the existing federal program is a more pragmatic approach in New Hampshire. Last year, a bipartisan attempt to automatically enroll students whose families participate in Medicaid into the free and reduced-price lunch program fell short in the state Legislature, after some Republican lawmakers warned it could put unwanted strains on the state’s education trust fund. 

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