Valley News – Universal School Meal Funding Under Threat As Pandemic Programs End

WEST LEBANON — Universal Meals, which made school meals free for most students in the twin states amid the pandemic, ends June 30 in New Hampshire, and the future remains uncertain in Vermont.

Although the free meals authorized by the US Department of Agriculture’s federal waivers have endured, they have increased participation in school lunch programs in both states.

“Implementing Universal Meals has been a valuable resource for our community,” said Mascoma Valley Regional School District Superintendent Amanda Isabelle. “This has enabled our students to receive meals regardless of their socio-economic status. He also removed the stigma of being a “free lunch kid”. ”

Proponents say the meals have reduced barriers to school meals and ensured students get the nutrients they need to succeed. In order to receive free or reduced-price meals next school year, families — at least those in New Hampshire — will again have to fill out registration forms asking for household income.

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

In some cases, students can qualify for free school meals if they are already participating in other 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 are also eligible.

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

This 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 extra help in areas such as reading and math.

Because parents have not filled out forms while meals have been free for all since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, Mascoma is among the districts that have seen a sharp drop in the number of students who qualify for a free/reduced lunch.

“This means that 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 considering a proposal, SB 100, that would extend universal meals for another school year on a pilot basis at a cost of $29 million. It’s a proposal sponsored by the Senate Agriculture Committee that is backed by anti-hunger groups such as Hunger Free Vermont, as well as food service providers and families. However, it encountered opposition from some school administrators due to the cost and the lack of an ongoing source of income to sustain it.

“This is a very important question,” said State Senator Robert Starr, a Democrat from North Troy, Vermont, who serves as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “We have the money in the school fund. 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’re in a good position to push it through.

Starr said in an email late Thursday that he hoped the bill would be defeated by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Friday and submitted to the full Senate for a vote on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Orange East watchdog union superintendent Emilie Knisley said she hoped universal meals would continue with a caveat.

“I believe 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 additional liability to the Education Fund,” she said.

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

Within the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, Superintendent David Baker said he has seen an almost 50% increase in school lunch program attendance due to universal meals.

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

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

Some schools offered free breakfast and lunch to all students before the pandemic. That included 77 Vermont schools, according to a Universal School Meals Task Force report provided to the Legislature in February. Most of these schools had higher poverty levels that allowed them to provide free lunches using mostly federal funds. There were still local costs that were passed on to the state education fund. Before the pandemic, only three schools in New Hampshire offered universal meals, said Kimberly Houghton, spokeswoman for the Department of Education.

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

Some schools are eligible for the Federal Community Eligibility Provision which was created by the Healthy Children Free of Hunger Act of 2010 and made available to schools nationwide in 2014. It allows eligible schools – those with at least 40% of students who receive free meals – to be reimbursed by the USDA at the highest free rate for a certain percentage of meals.

Other schools use another option called “Provision 2”, which reimburses schools based on the attendance rate of students in different income categories, with the highest reimbursement rate for those who eat free lunches and the most low for those who are paid.

In the Orange East Supervisory Union, Knisley said she expects Waits River Valley School, which served pupils in Corinth and Topsham and provided universal meals before the pandemic, to continue providing meals universal, whether or not 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 they will have to fill out free/reduced lunch forms at the start of the school year. next school year in order to continue to get meals at no cost, if they qualify.

But Porter said she worries families who need the meals and have to fill out the paperwork to get them, “often have layers of other things going on in life.” While “signing up for things might not be at the top of their to-do list”.

Additionally, Porter said, some families don’t like asking for this kind of assistance, and others may find it difficult to fill out forms online when the only device they have to do so is a smartphone.

Porter said she fears reinstating the forms “would end up creating another layer of struggle for our families.”

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

Julio V. Miller