Data, not desire, will decide whether NH extends food assistance to kids
|Published: 07-13-2023 3:00 PM
Forty-four states have gotten approval from the federal government to extend a program that helped lower-income families afford groceries for their children during the pandemic. The money began as a replacement for free- and reduced-price school meals when schools went remote.
New Hampshire must decide by Friday if it will pursue the same option for more than 30,000 Granite State children who would be eligible. Doing so would provide families $120 per child through September when school – and school meals – resume.
That decision hinges on resolving a data collection challenge facing the departments of Education and Health and Human Services, said Karen Hebert, director of the Division of Economic Stability at Health and Human Services.
To be considered for an extension, states must provide the USDA Food and Nutrition office the number of children who qualify for free or discounted school meals. In New Hampshire, that number isn’t available from the Department of Education until November, after schools have had time to confirm eligibility for existing and new students, Hebert said.
That timing essentially excluded New Hampshire from extended federal funding, Hebert said, because the federal government was giving states only until September, a month before it had numbers, to disburse the money. That deadline was recently extended to December. It’s still tight, but no longer impossible, Hebert said.
“We want to make sure we can make all those pieces fit,” she said. “And if (the USDA Food and Nutrition office) accepts what we want to do, we will absolutely apply for this.”
That assistance is critical for the state’s lower-income families and children, said Laura Milliken, executive director of NH Hunger Solutions. Her agency issued an “urgent” call to supporters this week, asking them to urge Gov. Chris Sununu to ensure the state applies for the extended assistance.
Milliken said she understands the state’s challenge but worries about families who are struggling too as costs, including food prices, have climbed.
“We want to be as supportive as we can, but we also think it does not make sense at a time that families are food insecure to turn away millions of federal dollars that could help hungry children,” she said.
Based on last year’s school data, the most recent available, approximately 37,000 children would qualify for the benefit because they were eligible for free- or reduced-price meals, Hebert said. That would equal about $4.4 million in additional money to the state.
Milliken believes getting the money to families by December is doable, even with the administrative challenges New Hampshire and many states have cited.
“We could for the next five months make it a priority and figure out how to get it done,” she said.
Lawmakers were asked this legislative session to pursue two separate initiatives that would have made it easier for more children to get free- and reduced-price meals.
House Bill 572 would have increased the income levels for eligibility so more children would qualify, from a cap of $55,000 per year for a family of four to around $90,000 per year. That passed the House but failed in the Senate.
House Bill 601 would have automatically enrolled children covered by Medicaid in the free- and reduced-price school lunch program, eliminating the complicated application process believed to keep some eligible families from applying. The bill would not have expanded eligibility but would have likely increased the number of students receiving subsidized meals. That failed in the House, never making it to the Senate.
According to a May U.S. Census survey of New Hampshire households, 172,000 children were living in New Hampshire homes where families reported having too little or insufficient access to nutritious food.
“So it’s not necessarily that they’re not eating at all,” Milliken said. “It’s that they’re not eating the foods that constitute a nutritious diet for their family. They’re making choices that are sacrificing their health.”
As the Department of Health and Human Services investigates its options for extended food assistance, Hebert is encouraging individuals and families to pursue other assistance, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and similar benefits available to women and children through the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program.
The summer food service program provides free healthy meals and snacks to children and teens in low-income areas. The University of New Hampshire has created an interactive food access map to find locations and contact information for pantries, meal programs, farms, and other locations that accept state food assistance benefits.
“It’s important for (families) to know not just about this benefit but also about what else is available,” Hebert said. “This is one piece of the resources that we want families to know about and be able to access.”