The coronavirus pandemic has led to a nationwide expansion of the free and reduced lunch program for K-12 students, but unfilled paperwork could mean districts miss out on millions of dollars for low-income students next year.
The glitch is an unintended consequence of the country’s meals expansion efforts, which in previous years required parents to complete forms to qualify. School districts say with fewer interactions due to remote learning, they are struggling to notify parents of the need to complete the forms.
Typically, families must complete applications to determine if their income qualifies them for free meals at school. This application serves another key purpose: state and federal governments use the number of students on free or reduced lunch to measure school-level poverty and allocate funding.
That process was disrupted this year, as districts across New Hampshire took advantage of a federal initiative to offer free meals to all students, regardless of income, through curbside pick-up, delivery, or in school. Families who normally filled out forms no longer needed to in order to access meals.
But with fewer complete free meal applications, districts are now looking at millions of dollars less in poverty-based state aid. An estimate of state adequacy aid, released by the N.H. Department of Education earlier this week and based on free or reduced lunch counts this October, shows a significant decline in students qualifying for free or reduced lunch.
Manchester, for example, saw its free or reduced lunch numbers decline by 30 percent. That translates to $4 million less in state aid. In Raymond, the number of students signed up for free or reduced lunch dropped 40 percent. In Franklin, that decline was 41 percent.
The decline among districts corresponds to a $19 million drop in poverty-based “differentiated” state aid for next fiscal year.
New Hampshire’s artificially low free meals numbers also have implications for federal funding. The federal government distributes money based on student enrollment and free or reduced lunch numbers, meaning an inaccurate count in New Hampshire this year could mean less money for special education, tutoring, and professional development.
The N.H. Department of Education says districts still have time to correct the tally and restore some of their state aid, if they manage to get qualifying parents to fill out forms before the end of the school year.
Franklin Superintendent Daniel Legallo says his district is starting a campaign to get more forms completed this winter. He suspects that pandemic-related job loss likely means more families need free or reduced lunch now than in 2019. But with many families opting to stay fully remote and other students only coming to school a few days a week in a hybrid model, the district is struggling to contact parents.
“I haven’t ruled out going door to door with some of our personnel to hand out the forms to make sure they get in peoples’ hands and they get filled out,” he says.
“It’s just a matter of making sure our families recognize that without those forms being processed, we are at risk of losing that revenue.”
Parents or guardians who want to fill out a free or reduced lunch application should go to their school's website or contact the food service director at their school district.