MANCHESTER — The issue is over a 35-cent carton of milk and the billions of tax dollars spent on subsidizing school lunches.
All four members of the state's congressional delegation said Tuesday they will look into why some Manchester students are dumping their free and reduced-cost federal lunches into the trash because they can't get only the free milk portion to drink with lunches brought from home.
U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte plans to send a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, asking for greater flexibility for school districts.
"This is a classic example of a misguided regulation from Washington that highlights the importance of local school districts being able to make decisions that best serve local students," said the text of her letter, released by her office.
"While federal school meal guidelines should promote high nutritional standards, I ask you to review this rule to ensure that school districts — such as the one in Manchester, New Hampshire — have the flexibility they need to effectively meet the nutritional needs of students," Ayotte wrote.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the national school lunch program, which spent $11.6 billion in Fiscal Year 2012 to provide reduced-cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children each school day.At Monday's school board meeting, Superintendent Debra Livingston said the district couldn't offer the "free milk-only option." The eight-ounce milk comes in four varieties, including chocolate and strawberry, she said Tuesday.
In Manchester schools, 7,068 students are eligible for free lunches, representing 48 percent of the district's students. Another 822, or 6 percent, qualify for reduced-cost lunches, Livingston said.
In October alone, Manchester schools served 40,068 free breakfasts and 109,869 free lunches. Buying breakfast costs $1.20; buying lunch costs $1.90 for elementary students and $2.15 for middle school and high school students.
"We're not sure how many kids" are throwing away food to get the free milk, Livingston said.
She said she didn't know how long the no milk-only provision has been in effect.
State Department of Education officials weren't available for comment Tuesday; a USDA spokesman said he needed to research the matter.
Elizabeth Kenigsberg, press secretary for U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said the situation "sounds unreasonable and our office is asking the USDA to explain this."
The two Democratic representatives also planned to ask more questions.
"With so many Granite Staters going hungry, Rep. (Annie) Kuster believes we need smart policies to avoid wasting money and wasting food," said Kuster spokesman Rob Friedlander. "She thinks this policy should be revisited so that we can try to find ways to more efficiently meet the nutritional needs of our students."
A spokesman for Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., said her office is researching the matter.
"I've reached out to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and asked it to report back to me about this policy" she said. "The goal of ensuring that low-income students have a balanced, nutritious meal and aren't hungry during the school day is the right one, but schools might need more flexibility to achieve that goal."
Mayor Ted Gatsas, who chairs the school board, questioned the federal policy. "Let's apply some common sense to what they're doing," he said.
Gatsas said he has visited cafeterias during lunch.
"I've been in the cafeteria and sat with children at the table and seen they have not eaten their lunches and they have thrown them away," Gatsas said. He said he didn't know whether the students had purchased the lunch or received a free or reduced-cost meal.