With school lunches free for all, districts run into a budgeting headache

By: - October 27, 2021 3:44 am
A school cafeteria

As of Jan. 3, the state had already reimbursed for 8,059,950 meals, with six months to go in the fiscal year. (Jon Cherry | Getty Images)

The numbers appeared off as soon Mark MacLean looked at them. It was fall 2020, and Merrimack Valley School District had collected its annual count of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch. In just one school year, the tallies in all six of the district’s towns had dropped. 

The average number of students who had applied for reduced-price lunches in Andover dipped from 102 to 43. In Boscawen, the tally dropped from 163 to 91. In Penacook, the number fell from 225 to 128.

MacLean, the district’s superintendent, knew the numbers weren’t right. The discrepancy was the result of a federal program to help families during the pandemic. But solving it was going to take effort.

Since the start of the pandemic, New Hampshire school districts and families have benefited from waivers offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for universal free lunches in schools. The temporary waivers mean schools are fully reimbursed for the lunches they provide, allowing them to offer the food without charging families.

But the free lunch program, which the federal department has extended to June 2022, carries with it an unintended consequence. With all families now benefiting from free lunches, there is no longer a direct incentive for low-income families to continue applying for the free and reduced-price lunch program, district officials say. 

The result: New Hampshire’s statewide count of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch dropped from the 2019-2020 school year to the 2020-2021 school year, state data shows. That has affected the state’s ability to collect data on families making up to 185 percent of the federal poverty line, or $49,025 for a family of four. 

The tallies are important. Beyond providing schools the funding to offer the free and reduced-price lunches in the first place, the numbers also determine how much additional money a district gets from the state under the adequacy formula.

State lawmakers have already alleviated the financial threat. In the two-year budget passed and signed earlier this year, the Legislature voted for a temporary fix, directing the Department of Education to use prior years’ attendance counts to determine how much additional aid it should allocate for free and reduced-price lunch students. That’s kept districts whole as they wait to see what the USDA decides to do about the waivers in the coming school years. 

Still, even with a legislative patch, school districts are trying every tool they can to convince qualifying parents to continue applying for the programs and close the data gap.

“Districts have used everything short of bribes, from pizza parties, to dances, to raffles, who knows, to try and grab all of the accurate data that they can for the free and reduced applications,” said Jerry Frew, the associate executive director the the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, in testimony to lawmakers Thursday. 

One district even raffled off an iPad to families that participated, Frew said. 

Most districts have had to resort to less flashy methods. In Franklin, the district mailed the applications home to every parent – regardless of income level – in an attempt to equalize the process.

In Newport, the district brought up the issue at open houses in the schools, stressing to parents the importance of filling out the applications so the district could continue to receive federal aid. 

“We tried to stress at school board meetings and things like that, which are aired on TV, that this is really important for the district because Newport is not a wealthy district, and we get substantial funding increases from this free and reduced lunch” program, Newport Superintendent Brendan Minnihan said.

And in the Merrimack Valley School District, MacLean tried a more direct approach. Using the figures showing the massive drops in applications for free and reduced lunch, MacLean translated that to dollars, showing how much the school district could have lost had the state not intervened. In Boscawen alone, the potential hit was $130,897. Across the district, the number was about $485,000. 

In a document sent to parents titled “It’s more than a meal application,” MacLean took that projected funding loss and converted it into potential property-tax hikes. That got parents’ attention. 

“It certainly compelled some folks to go through and fill out the application,” MacLean said, though not everyone, he noted. The numbers were still down compared to previous years.

Even without the past years’ unusual funding situation, the free and reduced lunch program can pose difficulties, districts say. Families and children often fear the stigma of applying to the program, or forget to do so. Districts can cover the cost of lunches while families turn around their applications – “we’re gonna feed students no matter what,” MacLean said – but with most lunch programs already operating at a loss, that assistance can go only so far. 

And while this year’s legislative fix has prevented the districts from facing those shortfalls, lawmakers say drawing on past years’ numbers isn’t an ideal long-term solution. 

The conundrum has prompted some state representatives to return to the drawing board. At a joint meeting last week, members of the House Education and House Finance committees teamed up to discuss whether the state should continue relying on free and reduced lunch data as a metric to determine which schools need aid – or to find other metrics entirely.

“Who knows what the USDA is going to do as far as the program and continuing waivers?” said Rep. David Luneau, a Hopkinton Democrat. “Maybe all students will continue to have waivers for free lunches, and (free and reduced-price lunch) data might evaporate completely. So I think now is the time to begin looking into the availability and relevance of other available data points.”

No solution is perfect, though, lawmakers say. In a state that lacks an income tax, there are few comprehensive ways to determine income levels in school districts at a granular level, noted Mark Manganiello, the program support coordinator at the Department of Education, in remarks to the committee. 

The state has historically not used census data, which is subject to response errors, to determine district-by-district adequacy data. 

And while data from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance programs is currently used by the Department of Education to supplement districts’ free and reduced lunch tallies and fill in any gaps, those programs also require families to apply, making them imperfect measurements. 

The legislative committee will continue to meet to hammer out a better solution before the USDA ends the universal lunch program next year, Chairwoman Karen Umberger said last week. For now, districts are trying to stick to tried and true methods: convincing parents, one by one, that pursuing the application is the right thing to do. 

Franklin started the 2020-2021 school year with 250 fewer kids signed up for free and reduced lunch than in the year before, Superintendent Daniel LeGallo said. After the applications were mailed to all parents, the district “got about 100 more of them back.”

“So, you know, we were happy with that,” LeGallo said.

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.