Valley News – Universal school meal funding in jeopardy as pandemic programs end

WEST LEBANON — Universal meals, which have made school meals free for most students in the Twin States amid the pandemic, are ending June 30 in New Hampshire, and the future remains uncertain in Vermont.

While the free meals allowed through federal waivers from the US Department of Agriculture have lasted, they’ve driven up participation in school meal programs in both states.

“The implementation of universal meals has been a valuable resource to our community,” Mascoma Valley Regional School District Superintendent Amanda Isabelle said. “It has allowed our students to receive meals regardless of socioeconomic status. It has also taken away the stigma of being a ‘free lunch kid.’ †

Advocates say the meals have reduced barriers to school meals and ensured that students get the nutrients they need to be successful. In order to receive free or reduced-price meals next school year, families — at least those in New Hampshire — will once again be required to complete enrollment forms that ask about household income.

In traditional meal programs, families have to prove incomes below 130% of the federal poverty level, or $34,450 annually for a family of four, in order to qualify for free meals. In Vermont, even prior to the pandemic, the state covered the cost of reduced-price meals so that students whose families have incomes of up to 185% of the federal poverty level, or $49,025 annually for a family of four, can also receive free meals.

In some cases, students can qualify for free school meals if they already participate in other entitlement programs such as 3SquaresVT, known as food stamps, or SNAP in New Hampshire, and Reach Up. In addition, children who are homeless, in foster care or whose parents are migrant workers also qualify.

While some Upper Valley school officials are concerned that the end of universal meals may mean that some students who would benefit from free meals will no longer have access to them, they also hope that returning to the forms will help schools track the income levels of students in the school.

Doing so will help schools determine their eligibility for certain federal grant programs such as Title I, which provides funding to schools with high levels of poverty to provide students with additional assistance in areas such as reading and math.

Because parents haven’t been filling out the forms while meals have been free for all since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, Mascoma is among the districts that have seen a sharp decline in the numbers of students who qualify for free/reduced lunch.

“This means our district will only have one Title I-eligible school next year,” Isabelle said.

That’s down from three or four in a typical year, she said.

In Vermont, the Legislature is still mulling a proposal, SB 100, that would extend universal meals for another school year on a pilot basis for a cost of $29 million. It’s a proposal sponsored by the Senate Agriculture Committee that’s supported by anti-hunger groups such as Hunger Free Vermont, as well as food service providers and families. It has seen opposition from some school administrators, however, due to the cost and the lack of an ongoing revenue stream to support it.

“It is a very important issue,” said Sen. Robert Starr, a Democrat from North Troy, Vt., who serves as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “We have the money in school funds. It’s good for our children, good for our families and good for our farmers. It’s the smart thing to do and I think we stand in a good position to get it passed.”

Starr said in a late Thursday email that he was hopeful the bill would be voted out of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Friday and go to the full Senate for a vote on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Orange East Supervisory Union Superintendent Emilie Knisley said she hopes universal meals will continue with a caveat.

“I do believe that they have made a difference for students and families, but I think we need a sensible way to pay for the proposal in the state without adding a further liability to the Education Fund,” she said.

“It appears that there is a plan to fund a pilot program for a year with one-time surplus money, but to sustain the program long-term we need a plan to make it affordable and not shift that expense to local school budgets,” said Knisley, whose supervisory union includes Bradford, Vt.-area schools. “It is important to offer this program for students, I just want us to analyze the best way to look at these costs to make sure there is a viable long-term funding source.”

In the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, Superintendent David Baker said he’s seen a nearly 50% increase in participation in the school meal program due to universal meals.

It’s “too early to see if there are academic impacts, but intuitively it seems like kids really like breakfast and lunch and it seems to have a calming effect on them,” he said.

He said he expects participation would “drop significantly if we were to go back to a pay-as-you-go system.”

Some schools offered free breakfast and lunch for all students prior to the pandemic. That included 77 schools in Vermont, according to a report by the Universal School Meals Task Force provided to the Legislature in February. Most of those schools had higher poverty levels that allowed them to offer free meals using primarily federal funds. There were still some local costs that were passed along to the state education fund. Prior to the pandemic, just three schools in New Hampshire offered universal meals, said Kimberly Houghton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education.

There are a few options for how schools can implement a universal meal program under a typical “pricing” program.

Some schools qualify for the federal community eligibility provision that was created by the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and made available to schools across the country in 2014. It allows eligible schools — those that have at least 40% of students that qualify for free meals — to be reimbursed from the USDA at the higher free rate for a certain percentage of meals.

Other schools use another option called “provision 2,” which reimburses schools based on the rate of participation of students in different income categories, with the highest rate of reimbursement for those who eat free meals and lowest for paid.

In the Orange East Supervisory Union, Knisley said she expects the Waits River Valley School, which serves students from Corinth and Topsham, and provided universal meals prior to the pandemic, will continue to provide universal meals regardless of whether the Legislature decides to fund the meals statewide.

“If they didn’t qualify for provision 2, they would work to fund them outside of that program,” Knisley said.

In Claremont, Courtney Porter, school social worker for SAU 6, said she aims to make sure the families she works with know that they will need to complete the free/reduced lunch meal forms at the beginning of next school year in order to continue getting meals at no charge, if they qualify.

But Porter said she is concerned that families who need the meals and are required to complete the paperwork to get them, “often have layers of other things going on in life.” So that “applying for things might not be at the top of their to-do list.”

In addition, Porter said, some families don’t like to ask for this type of assistance and others may have trouble completing online forms when the only device they have to do so is a smartphone.

Porter said she’s concerned that reinstating the forms will “end up creating another layer of struggle for our families.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3213.

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