The Bulletin Board

Senate delays proposal to expand free and reduced price lunch eligibility

By: - April 24, 2023 11:55 am

The Senate Education Committee voted during an executive session to hold off on action on a bill to expand the free and reduced price lunch programs in schools, on April 18, 2023. (Screenshot)

A push to increase who is eligible for free and reduced price lunches in schools is facing a setback, after the Senate Education Committee recommended delaying a decision on the bill until next year. 

House Bill 572 would raise the income threshold for reduced price lunches from 185 percent of the federal poverty level to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The bill would make the upper cap for a family of four around $90,000 per year next school year, compared to $55,500 per year under current law. 

The bill passed the Republican-led House in March, 201-177. But members of the Senate committee said they wanted more time to analyze how much the bill would cost the state. The committee voted, 5-0, to retain the bill last Tuesday.

Under the national school lunch program, students in families making up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level – $36,075 for a family of four – can receive lunches and breakfasts at schools for free, and those making between 130 percent and 185 percent can get them at a reduced rate of 30 cents per breakfast meal and 40 cents per lunch meal. 

The program can bring significant savings: Lunches can cost up to $4 per student otherwise. School districts are directly reimbursed by the federal government for the difference in price. 

Child hunger advocates say the subsidies help ensure children in low-income families have regular access to nutritious food, and educators say it helps improve performance and focus.

But critics of the bill to raise the threshold from 185 to 300 percent note that the federal government will reimburse school districts only for participants up to the 185 percent income limit; any expansion of the program would need to be paid for either by school districts or the state. HB 572 would require the expansion to be paid out of the state’s Education Trust Fund, leaving school districts off the hook.

In an interview, Sen. Tim Lang, a Sanbornton Republican, said he and other senators had voted to shelve the bill because of logistical issues. He worried the bill did not make clear that the state would be paying the meal discounts only for families making between 185 percent and 300 percent of the federal poverty level, and that the federal government could interpret the bill to mean the state was paying for all families. And he said lawmakers needed to make clear that the newly eligible higher-income families would not count toward a school’s free and reduced price lunch average daily attendance numbers, which affect how much schools get paid under the state’s adequacy formula.

“I think everybody was in basic support of the idea, but we want to make sure we understand, exactly, the implications of it,” he said. 

In an email Wednesday, New Hampshire Hunger Solutions, an advocacy group, said it would redouble its efforts next year. Under Senate rules, any bill that is re-referred to a committee must be acted upon the next year. 

“We were disappointed the committee decided not to act on HB 572 this year, but we made great progress and are committed to passing it next year,” the organization stated in an email. “… HB 572 is far from dead. It is only on pause.”

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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. Email: [email protected]