The rates of children who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches has ballooned over a decade. Yet area school officials say there are more eligible families who don't apply for the program, which not only provides access to meals but also qualifies schools for federal grants and additional state money.
The percentage of students in New Hampshire who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches grew by 66 percent over 10 years. As of October 2012, 46,659, or 27.3 percent, of New Hampshire public school students in grades 1 through 12 qualified for the program, up from 16.4 percent in 2002.
Of the 14 districts in the Sentinel’s coverage area, all but three saw at least a 55 percent increase in the percentage of students who are eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches between the 2002-03 and 2012-13 school years. Four districts’ eligibility rates more than doubled, and only one district — Nelson — saw a decrease.
Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the National School Lunch Program. For a family of four in the 2013-14 school year, that's an annual income of $30,615.
Reduced lunches, for which students pay 40 cents per lunch, are provided to families with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level, or no more than $43,568 for a family of four.
The Sentinel compared the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch rather than the number of students eligible because enrollment totals have dropped by 24,204 students statewide, or 12.3 percent, from 2002 to 2012. Nearly all local districts also have seen a decline in the enrollment in that time.
In Winchester, which at 64 percent has one of the highest rates of eligibility for free or reduced lunch in the state, the percentage increased about 58 percent since 2002.
Many families in the area lost jobs in the past few years, and many were forced to take lower-paying or part-time employment as replacement, Superintendent James M. Lewis said when asked about the increase.
State officials said the economic recession contributed to the increase, as did a 2004 federal law that required all school districts to allow direct certification into the subsidized lunch program for families who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
Those families always automatically qualified for the free and reduced-price lunch program, said Judith Fillion, director of the Division of Program Support at the N.H. Department of Education.
Before the 2004 law change, families still had to fill out an application providing income levels as evidence. So, essentially, part of the hike in eligibility rates is due to a more accurate enrollment, she said.
Still, officials in some area school districts think more families who attend their schools would qualify for the program if they applied.
There are some Winchester families that school staff suspect would qualify for the program who don't fill out the paperwork, Lewis said. But that's their choice, and the school doesn't push it.
"We try to do it as nonchalantly as possible," he said. "It's a sensitive subject. Nobody wants to be reliant upon the state, but sometimes you need a hand every once in a while."
The Monadnock Regional School District has increased its efforts to educate families about the program, because many may think they make too much money to qualify, Business Administrator Jane E. Fortson said. As the economy improves, families who needed help temporarily might fall out of the eligibility bracket, Fortson said. But because of the increased knowledge about the program's income requirements, she expects the levels to stay steady in coming years.
It's also common to see a drop off in the number of students qualifying for subsidized lunches between the 8th and 9th grades, N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 Superintendent Wayne E. Woolridge said. That's not because families suddenly get wealthier, he said, but because fewer students tend to buy school lunches in high school, so fewer families fill out the application.
School administrators said they obviously want all students to have access to healthy meals, but there are also other good reasons to make sure all families who are eligible actually apply.
That's because for every student who qualifies for a subsidized lunch, districts receive an extra $1,750 in state education aid. There are also a host of federal grant programs that use the free and reduced lunch rate as a credential for applying.
"So, of course, if they qualify, we want them to apply," Fortson said.
Only schools with free and reduced-priced lunch rates of 30 percent or higher qualify for federal Title 1 money, which are grants directed toward schools with high levels of low-income families, Woolridge said. This year, Keene received more $750,000 in those grants, he said.
Other federal programs that use free and reduced-price lunch rates as a qualifier include e-Rate, a reimbursement program for telecommunications and Internet expenses; 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants, which support before- and after-school programs; and the recent Race to the Top grants.
"There are many competitive grants, you can go down the list, including private grants, that have a strong component of free and reduced lunch," Woolridge said. "It seems to be the backbone of the criteria for a lot of funding."
In Nelson, the eligibility rate dropped from 25 percent in 2002-03 to 15.8 percent in 2012-13, and this year, the district lost Title 1 money and its Fresh Fruits and Veggies program, a federal snack program, due to the drop in eligibility, Principal Sheila Vara said.
As a result, the administration and school board members decided to remind parents that even if they don't want to take a free or reduced-price meal, they can still help the school receive money it qualifies for by filling out an application.
Vara, Fortson and Woolridge all agreed that most parents probably don't realize how many programs are tied to free and reduced-priced eligibility rates.
Woolridge, who serves as superintendent for Keene, Nelson and five other communities in Unit 29, said he calculates that for a family of four who meets the criteria for free or reduced-price lunches but doesn't fill out the application, the school district misses out on nearly $100,000 in money from state and federal resources over the years that family's children are in school.
He also likes to point out that the program is anonymous at the school level. No one in the schools know who is on free or reduced lunch and who isn't, he said.
Woolridge said he knows New Hampshire parents are proud people, hesitant to accept what they see as hand out.
"But in this case, New Hampshire kids would be better off if parents would fill out the form."
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