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Free school meals rejected as Manchester board bucks federal program

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 25. 2014 11:23PM

MANCHESTER — The school board on Monday rejected applying for a federal program that would have covered the cost of breakfasts and lunches for all students at a cluster of elementary schools.

Under the Community Eligibility Provision, part of the larger overhaul of the federal school nutrition program enacted by the Obama administration in 2010, none of the students at schools where at least 40 percent of the children were deemed low-income would have to pay for the meals.

The program has been in place since 2010, but only 11 state have implemented it. The 2014-2015 school year marks the first time it will be available in all 50 states.

District Food Services Director Jim Connors told the board that a cluster of five elementary schools would likely be eligible for the program: Beech Street, McDonough, Wilson, Gossler Park and Bakersville.

But he also cautioned that the number of students partaking of school meals would have to increase 45 percent for breakfast and 25 percent for lunch for the district to realize the revenue expected in this year’s budget. The U.S. Department of Agriculture would reimburse the district for the cost of the meals, but not at the same high rate it currently does for students who qualify for free meals.

Connors said the application for the program had to be finalized by the end of the month.

Mayor Ted Gatsas was supportive of pursuing the program.

“There are kids that may not qualify for free or reduced lunch that go hungry,” he said.

But several school board members raised concerns about the program, both on ideological grounds and because they weren’t given enough time to review it.

“We keep saying we’re not going to pay for it,” Ward 6 board member Robyn Dunphy said. “But it’s another entitlement program.”

Ward 10 board member John Avard, who has been an outspoken critic of changes to the school meal program pushed by the federal government, slammed the proposal.

“I don’t want to be locked into federal guidelines that really have destroyed the school lunch program in my mind,” he said. “I want to see us go in the other direction, away from government control.”

Superintendent Debra Livingston said she saw advantages and disadvantages in joining the program.

“It’s ensuring that every student can have breakfast, and they don’t have to fill out forms ... they can just grab it. But there is a risk,” she said, referring to the potential drop in revenue.

The board narrowly rejected applying for the program, but passed a motion to have the administration consider applying for it next year.

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