Districts focus on feeding kids through school vacation
There are plenty of programs in place to keep New Hampshire’s kids fed this summer, officials say
By Kelly Burch via the Granite State News Collaborative
With schools shut down, districts across the state scrambled to not only continue to feed the minds of the students they serve, but their bodies as well. Though the school year is done, many districts are still attempting to provide meals to local children and families. So far, officials say there are plenty of options available to keep New Hampshire children fed this summer, including school breakfast and lunch programs that are extending throughout the summer and increased access to government assistance meant to cover food costs.
“We have not ever offered a summer feeding option, but this summer we recognized there was a need in the community to continue to offer food to families for the summer months,” said Deborah Payne, business administrator for the Salem School District, who oversees the meals program.
After the transition to remote learning in March, many school districts in New Hampshire, including Salem, expanded their meal programs. Normally, school meals are tightly regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which mandates, for example, that meals distributed through schools be consumed onsite and that a certain amount of time passes between serving lunch and breakfast.
During the pandemic, the USDA issued waivers, allowing school districts to provide to-go meals, deliver meals and even provide multiple days worth of meals at one time. At the same time, the waivers allowed most families to access meals for free (normally just under 25% of students in New Hampshire are eligible for free or reduced lunch). The waivers have been extended throughout the summer.
According to DOE spokesman Grant Bosse, since the beginning of remote instruction, New Hampshire schools have served nearly 3.9 million meals, which are being reimbursed through three federal programs: National School Lunch Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program, Summer Food Service Program.
Bosse went on to say in an email, “We are diligently approving applications for summer feeding. We have about 22 SAUs signed up right now and have more coming. In addition, we have 23 Summer Food Service Program sponsors approved. These sponsors have approximately 180 sites in the state. (We normally have around 5 SAUs each summer, and had just over 100 sites last year.).”
He added that the state has also provided USDA with the information on the open sites for their mapping tool and have placed information into the UNH Food Access mapping tool.
Locally. in Salem this summer, meals will be available on Mondays and Thursdays at all six of the elementary schools and the middle school. Any child 18 or under can collect three breakfasts and three lunches for free on each of those days.
In Mount Washington Valley, SAU9 will also offer an expanded lunch program this summer. Beginning on July 6, each child can pick up two sets of meals on Mondays and three sets of meals on Wednesdays, from any of the elementary schools in the district.
Since March, the district has seen an increased demand for meals, said Kadie Wilson, assistant superintendent for SAU9. In addition to delivering meals, the district has made other items like toothpaste and toiletries available to families.
“Many people across our community are struggling given the challenges of COVID-19,” Wilson said. “SAU9 is located in the Mount Washington Valley. Our economy is highly dependent upon tourism. Delivering food these last few months has not only helped us meet some of their food needs, but also allowed us to have contact with students, to check in on them, and to break up their days a bit.”
For the summer program, families will need to pick up meals, which Wilson said could affect participation.
In Concord, summer meals programs will be provided by Community Action of Belknap-Merrimack Counties. The program typically supplies meals to any child under 18 in the county with no income requirements, according to the organization’s website. The meals can be picked up from various sites throughout the counties, including local schools.
Concord School District considered extending its own school meal program, but ultimately decided to stick with the normal routine, since Community Action already had a system in place for summer meals, said Donna Reynolds, school nutrition director for the Concord School District.
Reynolds, who is also the president of the School Nutrition Association of New Hampshire, said that the district had a relatively low demand for meals even after expanding the program to deliver free meals to any student who signed up.
“Even though we sent out numerous messages that any child 18 or younger could have free meals, a lot of families just were not feeling like they should take advantage of the meals at that time,” Reynolds said. She added that wasn’t necessarily good or bad, but that anyone who could use free meals for their children should take advantage of the program.
The Keene School district also struggled with lower participation in the expanded school lunch program during remote learning, said Lindy Paris, director of food services for the district. Keene allowed all children to get free meals, but the food needed to be picked up at schools. Just 16% of students in the district participated, Paris said. Because of that, the district decided not to offer a summer lunch program. However, Southwest Community Services typically offers a summer lunch program in the area, Paris said.
Paris noted that the low participation could be because more families are eligible for Pandemic EBT — government assistance meant to cover the cost of feeding children meals that they normally would eat at school. The program is available to all families who already get Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and some families who would not normally qualify for SNAP. The program provides an extra $5.70 per child, per school day, and can be used even if the child still received school meals during the pandemic. The benefits are available retroactively to those who apply by Aug. 24 at https://nheasy.nh.gov/.
Reynolds said that continuing easy access to school lunches is a priority for the School Nutrition Association of New Hampshire, given the uncertainties about what school will look like next year and the continuing economic implication of the pandemic. She would like to see the USDA extend waivers into next year allowing all children to get free school meals. That would give families financial relief, and lessen the burden on school districts for processing applications for free or reduced lunch, she said.
“It would be a lot less work not having to process applications, just knowing that all students will be at free status.”
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.