MANCHESTER - Manchester's school superintendent said she is hopeful the district can "within weeks" start offering free milk to students so they don't wind up throwing away the rest of their federally subsidized lunches just to get the beverage.
"I'm confident we're going to have a solution that basically allows children, if they're eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, if they bring their lunch from home, to have a free milk at no charge," Superintendent Debra Livingston said Friday.Livingston said she plans to learn more during a conference call Thursday afternoon with officials from the state Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Livingston said the district estimates "under 20" children are tossing the rest of their free or reduced-price lunch into the trash because they only want the milk. She said that was based on recent inquiries that the food services staff made at the city's schools to assess the size of the problem.
This fall, school board member Arthur Beaudry raised the issue at a school board meeting after walking through his ward campaigning for office. He said a parent asked Beaudry whether he had heard about the tossing of lunches. Livingston later reported back to the school board that federal rules required students to take a meal to get the free milk.
"It just seems foolish we can't give a carton of milk away if we don't give everything else away," Beaudry said in an interview.
Cheri White, administrator of the Bureau of Nutrition Programs and Services at the state Department of Education, said she believes a solution to the issue will be found.
In October, Manchester paid anywhere from 17.8 cents for an 8-ounce carton of 1 percent milk to 19.26 cents for a carton of strawberry milk, according to Jim Connors, director of food and nutrition services for the Manchester School District. Manchester charges 35 cents to paying students.
The federal government says Manchester has options under a policy that's been in place for more than a half-century.
"Though schools participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) can only claim federal reimbursement for complete meals, they are not restricted from selling milk a la carte or providing it free to students if they choose to do so," the USDA said in an email to the New Hampshire Sunday News. "It has been long-standing policy that schools may choose to use the revenue in their school food service account - including revenue generated from a la carte food sales - to cover the cost of milk provided to students."
Connors said he was told by a state official a few years back that he could not do that.
"Several times they mentioned you can't give food away," Connors said Friday.
White said her understanding is the program doesn't permit what the USDA statement says is allowed. She said she would need clarification from the federal government.
Connors said the federal government reimburses Manchester $2.86 for every free lunch, $2.46 for every reduced-price meal and 27 cents for each paid lunch.
In October alone, Manchester schools served 109,869 free lunches, according to Livingston. Buying lunch costs $1.90 for elementary students and $2.15 for middle school and high school students.
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 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 set at $43,568.
White said a majority of New Hampshire schools follow a federal "offer or serve" policy, permitting students to choose as few as three items from among milk, a fruit, a vegetable, a protein and a grain. A fruit or vegetable is currently required. Some districts automatically still serve all five types of foods, she said.
White said the USDA lunch requirements are to ensure children are "getting adequate nutrients for the day."
Up through the end of spring 2012, children eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch could take as little as a slice of pizza and a milk and the district would get its full subsidy, since pizza qualified as both a grain and a protein. The law was changed effective the following school year to require children to take a fruit or vegetable.
Meanwhile, some New Hampshire schools are creating funds for poor children to get money to buy milk, including Simonds School in Warner.
"We started a 'slush fund' for getting them a snack milk," Principal Judy Pellettieri said in an email. "This might not sound like a big deal, but it is hard when other kids are having a juice box from home or snack milk from school and their only choice is the water fountain."