MANCHESTER - The number of New Hampshire students in Grades 1 through 12 receiving free or reduced-price school lunches jumped 45 percent in the past decade even as the overall student enrollments declined, according to state figures.
Numbers showed 46,659 students were eligible as of October 2012, the latest figures available, compared with 32,133 in October 2002, according to a New Hampshire Sunday News review. Those numbers rose despite the state's enrollment dropping by 24,204, to 171,180, in 2012.
The percentage of the overall student population eligible for the subsidized lunches grew at an even higher rate, according to review of statistics on the state Department of Education website.
In 2002, 16.39 percent of all students were eligible compared with 27.26 percent in 2012, a 66 percent surge.
Manchester's overall free lunch numbers grew by 58 percent, from 4,258 in 2002 to 6,741 in 2012. But the ratio of eligible students jumped from about 1 in 4 enrolled students in 2002 to nearly 1 in 2 in 2012.
Cheri White, administrator of the Bureau of Nutrition Programs and Services with the state Department of Education, said two things help explain the hike in lunches, a federal program overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Number 1 is the socioeconomic reason," White said. "We just went through a recession. And (Number) 2, USDA instituted what it called a direct certification program, and for the direct certification program, all households that received food stamps are automatically (enrolled in the free school lunch program)."Jim Connors, director of food and nutrition services for the Manchester School District, cited a change in the city's demographics as well as the economic downturn.According to the USDA, children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals, meaning a family of four making $30,615 or less would qualify. Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of poverty qualify for reduced-price meals, for which students can be charged no more than 40 cents. That income ceiling is $43,568 for a family of four.Food stamp recipients qualify based upon income, expenses and financial resources. People on some government programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), don't need to meet income or resource requirements.
As of last September, more than 55,000 New Hampshire households participated in the food stamp program.