This story was updated on Aug. 30 at 10:46 a.m. to indicate that the universal school meals program is no longer operating, but that eligible families have a 30-day rollover period as classes start to continue receiving meal assistance as they submit an application.
School is starting this week for many New Hampshire families, and this year, some of the pandemic-era programs and policies will be missing.
One of those changes is the end to the universal school lunch program, the federal waiver providing all students with free school lunch regardless of income.
This year, schools will revert to the rules before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020. Families with higher incomes will need to pay for their children’s lunch again, while families with lower incomes will have to apply to receive assistance.
After two years of universal lunch coverage, schools are now rushing to reach out to parents and families and ensure they apply. Here’s what you need to know.
What is the national school lunch program?
The national school lunch program is an initiative passed in 1946 that aims to provide nutritious lunches to children in public schools and non-profit private schools. Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the program provided more than 30 million meals in New Hampshire last year, according to the state’s Department of Education.
The program includes two options for students in lower-income families: free or reduced price lunches. Those who qualify for free lunches do not need to pay. Those who qualify for reduced price lunches pay 30 cents for each breakfast meal and 40 cents for each lunch meal.
Who is now eligible for free and reduced price meals in New Hampshire?
This coming school year, any family that makes up to 130% of the federal poverty level is eligible for the free lunch program for their child. In 2022, that includes anyone in a household of four making up to $36,075 per year.
Families that make up to 185% of the federal poverty level are eligible for reduced price lunches. That includes families of four making up to $51,338 per year. You can find a full table of eligible income levels at Department of Education website, education.nh.gov, by searching “National School Lunch Program.”
Students in families that already receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) already qualify for either free or reduced price lunches. Families still need to apply.
How do I fill out an application?
Your child’s school district should have mailed home applications for the meal program ahead of the start of the school year. Those can be filled out and mailed back or delivered in person. You may also find an online application on your school district’s website. It can be printed out and delivered at any point in the year to begin receiving benefits.
What is different about the program this year?
This school year is the first since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in which families will need to apply for free and reduced price lunches. In 2020, Congress authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to issue a waiver making school lunches free for everyone, by reimbursing schools for all meals, regardless of the student’s income level. Under that waiver, families didn’t have to apply for the benefit since they received it automatically.
Congress declined to extend the program in July 2022, after Republicans opposed its continuation. But federal lawmakers did approve a bill, the Keep Kids Fed Act, that allows the USDA to continue waiving certain nutritional requirements for meals until June 2023. Those requirements were intended to ensure healthy ingredients, but schools struggled to secure them amid supply chain issues and rising costs.
How soon should I sign up?
As soon as possible. While the universal free meals program is no longer operating, the state still allows a 30-day rollover period at the start of each school year for families that benefitted from free or reduced price lunches the previous school year, which means families that qualify for the assistance have a month to fill out their applications to continue receiving free or reduced lunch in October and beyond.
What are the additional benefits of signing up?
Beyond the financial aid to families, signing up provides additional money to schools. The state provides public schools about $3,787 per student in annual assistance. But the state provides an additional $1,893 per student enrolled in the free and reduced price lunch program.
According to a flyer from the Department of Education promoting signing up, that additional money could go toward classroom supplies, after school programs, computer purchases, and fee waiver programs fo standardized tests.
What other resources are available for families with food insecurity?
Families looking for help with food insecurity can use the New Hampshire Food Bank’s food map to find local food pantries and soup kitchens near them.
People who are having difficulty finding meals can also call the National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-348-6479, or 1-866-3-HUNGRY, to speak to a representative who can connect them to local resources. The Spanish-language hotline is 1-877-842-6273, or 1-877-8-HAMBRE.
Information for applying to the SNAP program in New Hampshire can be found at https://nheasy.nh.gov/#/apply-benefits
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