The Bulletin Board

State sees large take-up in free meals after USDA makes school lunches universal

By: - January 25, 2022 1:06 pm
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)

New Hampshire’s school nutrition program is proving particularly popular this year, according to the Department of Education.

A COVID-era federal change opening up eligibility for the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program to all students – regardless of income level – has prompted an uptick in use of the free lunch program, department officials told lawmakers at a Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee meeting Friday. 

While the N.H. Department of Education distributed 13,130,658 meals during the summer and 2020-2021 school year, the state is already edging close to passing that figure this school year. As of Jan. 3, the state had already reimbursed for 8,059,950 meals, with six months to go in the fiscal year.

Education officials have attributed the increase to a change in policy from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. New Hampshire schools have benefitted from USDA waivers since the start of the pandemic that allow for universal free lunches – negating the need for lower-income families to apply for the free and reduced price lunch assistance. Those federal waivers are set to expire June 30. 

Department of Education representatives say the return to in-person instruction has also driven up the take-up rate for free school meals. While during the 2020-2021 school year parents whose children attended school remotely needed to drive to the school buildings to bring home free meals, New Hampshire’s public schools returned to in-class instruction this school year, broadly expanding the number of students receiving the free lunches. 

Now, the Department of Education is asking the Executive Council to accept additional federal funding to keep the free meal reimbursements flowing.

“When we built this budget two years ago, we did not anticipate COVID and the changes in the guidance from the federal government,” said Tammy Vaillancourt, the chief financial officer for the Department of Education. “We’re doubling our reimbursement requests from the schools.”

The request passed the fiscal committee in a 10-0 vote. The Executive Council will take up the item Wednesday. 

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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.