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Lebanon officials pass on offering free meal program for students

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/25/2020 7:10:17 PM
Modified: 10/25/2020 7:10:14 PM

LEBANON — Due to an inability to certify that the community has a “clear need,” the Lebanon School District is not participating in a federal program that would offer meals at no cost to all students regardless of their families’ income.

But some Upper Valley social service providers say that they have seen an increase in demand for food assistance among Lebanon residents during the COVID-19 pandemic and that the USDA’s waiver allowing for “universal meals” doesn’t require that the district meet any specific standard for need.

“Lebanon is the second-most-served town for our food shelf behind Hartford,” said Jennifer Fontaine, the operations director at the Upper Valley Haven. “There’s need.”

School officials say needy children in the district are getting free or reduced-price meals.

Visits to the Haven’s food shelf in White River Junction since the pandemic began in March are up about 10% over the same time period last year and visitors are getting more food than in the past, Fontaine said. More than 30% of visitors to the Haven’s food shelf are from Lebanon, she said.

In addition, Listen’s food pantry on Hanover Street in Lebanon, which sees foot traffic from surrounding neighborhoods as well as via Advance Transit, saw a 50% increase in visits from March to August compared to the prior year.

Almost all schools in Vermont, regardless of the level of poverty in their communities, are now using the USDA Summer Food Service Program to provide universal free meals, breakfast and lunch to all students. Some are also using the program to provide free meals to younger children and homeschoolers and to give students meals to take home on weekends.

They are doing so under a waiver, which the USDA recently extended through the end of the school year, which allows schools that aren’t located in areas with high levels of poverty to participate.

“We figured that given … the whole situation, that everybody was in need,” said Rosie Krueger, Vermont’s director of child nutrition programs, in a phone interview on Friday.

Between the Summer Food Service Program, child care meal programs and after-school meals, Vermont schools have distributed 6 million meals since March, Krueger said. The meals help address food insecurity and ensure that students have the energy they need to learn, but they also help to reduce stress on families who have been juggling more than usual in recent months. It also means that administrators don’t have to chase after families to get them to pay off their school meal debt.

All New Hampshire schools are eligible for the waivers, Grant Bosse, a spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Education, said in a Friday email. While schools must work with DOE, Bosse said, “I do not believe any school has been denied based on need. We are happy to work with schools to ensure they receive these waivers.”

Bosse didn’t have the number of New Hampshire schools participating in universal meals readily available on Friday afternoon.

During the Lebanon School Board’s Oct. 14 meeting, School District Business Manager Tim Ball told the board that the district needed to show a “clear and demonstrable need for the program to be expanded.”

“It didn’t appear at this point that Lebanon meets those standards,” he said.

He came to that conclusion by looking at four metrics, including the number of lunches the district delivered between March and August (10,000 fewer than the previous year), and the unemployment rate in Lebanon at the end of August — 4.4% compared with the state average of 6.4% and the national average of 8.4%.

He also told the board that the district had denied nine applications for free and reduced lunch through September of this year, which is in line with previous years, and he noted that schools in Plainfield and Grantham, which send students to Lebanon schools, have also decided not to participate in universal meals.

The program reimburses schools with an additional 3 cents per meal above the normal reimbursement rate, Ball said. But, he said, the need of families — other than those who already receive free or reduced price meals — should be the primary factor in determining whether to implement universal meals; the increased reimbursement rate should be secondary.

“I am charged with the responsible spending of all taxpayer funds, regardless of source (local, state, or federal),” Ball wrote.

Ball said that students who qualify based on their families’ income for free and reduced lunches continue to receive those meals, even those who are learning remotely. In addition, he said, “no child goes without a meal when at school — if a student needs a lunch, we provide one for that student, regardless of free/reduced lunch eligibility.”

Members of the Hunger Council of the Upper Valley, a group which Fontaine co-chairs and is organized by the statewide advocacy group Hunger Free Vermont, have sought to promote the idea of universal school meals as a way to address childhood hunger during the pandemic and beyond.

Some Upper Valley schools had already implemented or were exploring the idea of universal meals before the pandemic to try to ensure children get enough to eat without facing the stigma that can accompany the receipt of free and reduced price meals, and to reduce the need for administrators to collect debts families owe for school meals.

Beth Roy, who leads Vital Communities Food and Farm Program and the Upper Valley Farm to School Network, said the metrics Ball chose to use to evaluate food insecurity in Lebanon were not mandated by the state. Instead of taking into account what smaller towns such as Plainfield and Grantham are or aren’t doing, Roy said Lebanon school officials ought to look at what Hartford is doing, which is serving free breakfast and lunch at all its schools using the waiver for the Summer Food Service Program.

“I just don’t think they’re necessarily using stats that do reveal need,” she said.

Fontaine said her intent in speaking out about Lebanon’s decision not to participate in universal meals was “not to shame” Lebanon administrators but to highlight a difference in the way the Twin States’ education departments have informed schools about the COVID-19 related waivers.

“This is a bigger issue than just Lebanon,” she said.

While the Vermont Agency of Education has said that the pandemic is evidence of need across the board, the New Hampshire DOE has left it up to districts to determine what standard to use, she said.

“It’s about the whole state not being clear as to how to demonstrate need,” Fontaine said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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