CONCORD, N.H. – A new federal program could help 37,000 children who receive free and reduced meals at school access food during the summer months when school is not in session.
But advocates are worried about the state’s inaction, facing a looming deadline of Feb. 15 to submit a plan for the new Summer EBT program, worth $4.5 million.
If the state doesn’t act soon, it won’t be able to participate in the program, according to Laura Milliken, the executive director of New Hampshire Hunger Solutions, one of 30 organizations that sent a letter recently urging Governor Chris Sununu to act.
“Please do not turn away millions of dollars that could help feed hungry children and stimulate our state’s economy,” the letter read. Other signatories include the American Heart Association, Bi-State Primary Care Association, the Disability Rights Center of NH, and the New Hampshire Hospital Association.
A spokesperson for the state Department of Health and Human Services said the state is working on its plan but has encountered barriers it attributes to the federal government.
“In advance of the February 15 deadline, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services has continuously pressed the federal government to clarify program requirements to best understand financial and logistical impacts to the State, participating nonprofit agencies, and local stakeholders,” said Jake Leon in a statement. “Outstanding questions and clarifications remain unanswered by the federal government. More updates will be provided next week.”
The new federal program would provide $40 per month in Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT, to qualifying families. Federal funds also cover half of the administrative costs, but the Department of Health and Human Services said that state still needs to contribute an additional $392,500 to start the program and $225,420 in ongoing funding, according to the letter, which estimates the program could generate $7 million to $9 million in economic activity.
“Summer EBT is also an important community economic driver for our state,” the letter said, noting that a dollar spent on the program, modeled after the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, generates around $1.50 in economic activity.
“As participants purchase groceries with these federal benefits, not only grocers but those involved in producing, supplying and transporting food gain additional purchasing power,” according to the letter.
Milliken said employees at the Department of Health and Human Services have indicated they are working on a plan, but have encountered “administrative barriers” they are still trying to work out.
“We’re in the position of wanting kids to eat this summer and not wanting to miss an opportunity,” she said.
While this is a new program, Milliken said there are similarities with a pandemic Summer EBT program the state participated in. A key difference is that the state didn’t have to pay for administrative costs in the pandemic program.
The Household Pulse Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau surveys people about food insecurity. The latest available data, from October 2023, found that 16,573 households with children in N.H. reported not having enough to eat often, while another 18,804 households said they only sometimes have enough to eat. According to the survey, 36,402 households with children didn’t have enough of the kinds of food they wanted because they couldn’t afford to buy more food.
Eileen Liponis, the executive director of the New Hampshire Food Bank, said demand for food has been up in November, December, and January, with the food bank receiving more orders and distributing more food.
While the food bank only held six to 10 mobile food pantries per year before the pandemic, they’ve had to expand their offerings to meet demand. Now, they serve around 400 families at one mobile clinic per week.
“What we originally thought is we need to do the mobile markets to take pressure off agencies,” she said. “But we find not only is demand up from agencies, but it’s not letting up on the mobile pantries.”
She said having an extra resource in the form of the Summer EBT program would help.
“The state needs to do its part,” said Anne Hayes, executive director of Gather, a food pantry in Portsmouth. She said the non-profit has seen demand surge in the past year, receiving over 1,000 new applications for food assistance in that timeframe, a 20 percent increase from the year prior.
While the pantry used to see 35 to 40 people a day, Hayes said, now they average 60 to 65 a day, and the number is increasing. Recently, she said they’ve had many days with more than 70 people coming for food, and several days with more than 80 people. The small pantry struggles to accommodate that many people durings its open hours, because of space constraints, said Hayes.
The non-profit also runs mobile markets, where visits have also dramatically increased, from 2,600 people per month in 2021 to up to 5,500 per month on average now, according to Hayes.
“For people on fixed incomes or working hourly wages, their income is not increasing, and food prices are not coming down so the pressure is more and more,” said Hayes. Pandemic-era aid programs have ended, removing that cushion.
At the same time, the non-profit has seen a 29 percent decrease in food donations. Hayes said the organization is trying to fundraise to make up the difference, but that the state should not expect nonprofits to pick up all the slack on their own.
She urged the state to fund the Summer EBT program, which she said can help.
“It should be clear that if students need free and reduced price lunch in school, they need it during the summer or they’re not going to get fed,” she said.
“You can’t have kids be hungry,” she added. “It just isn’t OK.”