Last month, a bipartisan majority of state senators sent Gov. Chris Sununu a letter with a last-minute request. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was continuing a program to allow states to automatically sign up eligible public school students for the free and reduced-price lunch program using their families’ Medicaid enrollment information. Twenty-seven states were already enrolled; the deadline for new states to join this year was Sept. 30.

The benefits could be significant, advocates said. Linking school lunch assistance to Medicaid enrollment could bring up to 7,000 low-income New Hampshire students into the free and reduced lunch program who qualify now but have not applied, an analysis by New Hampshire Hunger Solutions found.

Citing that potential, 17 of New Hampshire’s 24 state senators urged Sununu to apply before the deadline.

“MDC (Medicaid Direct Certification) is a win-win – for children living with food insecurity, for schools and for the health of our state,” the senators wrote in their Sept. 26 letter about the USDA program.

Two days later, Sununu declined the request. In a Sept. 28 letter to senators, the governor cited the absence of legislative approval for the move. The Senate, he noted, had taken up a proposed amendment in the spring to require that the state apply for that very program, but voted it down in the end.

“We appreciate both the advantages and the concerns relative to this pilot project by the United States Department of Agriculture,” the governor wrote. But, he added, “an approach by the Department of Education to move forward with the demonstration project would contradict the direct actions of the legislature and quite frankly, would be inappropriate at this time.”

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Now, New Hampshire has missed the federal deadline for the 2023-2024 school year, according to USDA guidance. And some lawmakers and child hunger advocates argue the state has walked away from a chance to assist thousands of low-income students.

“It was a bipartisan effort,” said Sen. Becky Whitley, a Hopkinton Democrat. “I would have hoped that the governor would have seen that bipartisan support of the issue and done the right thing, which is to help children get access to food.”

This summer, a two-year, COVID-era federal program that allowed for automatic free school meals for all students expired. School administrators say they are now working to get families to once again apply for free and reduced lunch, and are battling stigma and lack of awareness to do so.

“What you see in schools is that as kids get older, they do not want to be called out as the poor kids,” said Laura Milliken, executive director of New Hampshire Hunger Solutions. “And so, often, they will not allow their families to fill out the free and reduced form and they do not participate. And they would rather go hungry than be called out as being poor.”

Automatic enrollment could help remove that hurdle, supporters of the program say.

Milliken and others also say Sununu did not need lawmakers’ approval in the first place.

“It was New Hampshire Hunger Solutions’ position that participation in the pilot didn’t require additional appropriations, so legislation was not required,” Milliken said.

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In a follow up statement Friday, Jayne Millerick, the governor’s chief of staff, said the governor supports the program in theory, but added that the state had stopped moving forward when the Legislature had voted no.

“It’s important to note the state cannot just join this program; it is an application process that takes considerable time and resources,” Millerick said. “Those efforts were halted once the Legislature – through its normal, open, and public process – rejected language to specifically participate in this program five months ago.”

Some Republicans have changed their minds since that vote, advocates said. While all 14 Senate Republicans did vote down a proposed amendment in April to require state participation in the program, seven of them appear to have since reversed their positions by signing last month’s letter to Sununu. The Republican-led House voted in favor of joining the program, 204-131, with 48 Republicans joining 156 Democrats to push it through, and 130 Republicans voting no.

First created in 2010, the Medicaid Direct Certification pilot program allows states to share information between the state Medicaid agency and its school districts to determine if a student’s family is making less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

U.S. public schools must provide free lunches to any student whose household makes up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level – or $38,295 for a family of four – and reduced price lunches for anyone making between 130 percent and 185 percent of that level – up to $51,338 for a family of four. Reduced-price lunches cost students 40 cents; a full-price lunch costs about $4.

Enrollment in the free and reduced lunch program can benefit students and schools: The USDA reimburses the school for the student’s discount, up to $3.90 per free lunch and $3.59 per reduced-price lunch. Schools receive 50 cents from the USDA for every lunch sold at full price.

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New Hampshire already provides certain income eligibility data from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs, allowing schools to automatically enroll students who qualify for the two programs. But Milliken said an analysis of census data suggests that adding automatic enrollment for Medicaid would capture additional students whose families may not be enrolled in TANF or SNAP.

Under the Medicaid Direct Certification program, a child attending public school “must receive, or live in a household with a child who receives, medical assistance under the Medicaid program” in order to be directly certified and enrolled, according to guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The data sharing is allowed under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), as long as the data includes only the bare minimum necessary to verify the student’s family income; additional information sharing about the student or other family members is forbidden.

Since its creation, the program has opened itself to new states four times: in 2012, 2016, 2021, and 2022.

Advocates such as Milliken say the information sharing could help break through the stigma that many students and parents face when considering whether to apply for the free and reduced lunch program. With direct certification, a lower-income student could show up to school with their swipe card already set at the reduced or free rate, reducing potential nervousness or embarrassment, Milliken said.

The program initially had bipartisan support in the Legislature. In March, the House passed it as an amendment to an unrelated piece of legislation.

But it encountered controversy when it arrived in the Senate. At a hearing  for House Bill 1627 before the Senate Education Committee, Republican lawmakers raised privacy concerns about data sharing. Representatives from the departments of Education and Health and Human Services said the program would not breach HIPAA, and noted that the departments already shared information from SNAP and TANF with schools. But the concerns persisted, and some Republicans also raised concerns about the cost to the state through the adequacy formula.

In a party-line vote on the Senate floor, the amendment was stripped out of HB 1627.

Five months later, a number of Republicans had changed their minds about the program. It was a Republican – Sen. Denise Ricciardi of Bedford – who had the idea to send the letter to Sununu about the approaching deadline, Whitley said. Ricciardi first passed the letter around to her fellow senators during “Veto Day” on Sept. 13, Whitley said.

Ricciardi was not available to comment Friday.

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To Whitley, the turnaround by seven of her Republican colleagues was welcomed.

“I commend those folks that did take a look at the information and were persuaded by how important this program is for hungry children,” she said.

But Millerick, the governor’s chief of staff, said despite its intentions, the letter was sent too late for the state to act. And she reiterated the governor’s position that he was waiting for direct legislative approval.

“Receiving a letter just a few days before the deadline, outside the legislative process, was not the proper avenue nor did it allow enough time for the state to submit an application,” she said. “The Governor conceptually supports the idea and would follow through on it if the Legislature passed a bill indicating their support.”

This story was produced by the editorially independent New Hampshire Bulletin, which is part of States Newsroom. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com.

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