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Free meals for all Colorado students? The FF proposal lets the voters decide.

For the past two years, school districts have been able to provide free lunches to all students after the federal government waived income eligibility criteria. About 20 percent more Colorado children — about 68,000 statewide — ate their meals at schools.

But those pandemic waivers expired this fall, and districts are again asking families to fill out forms to determine whether their students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The number of children eating at school is already falling, officials say.

Now, a measure in the Nov. 8 ballot will allow Colorado voters to decide whether or not to bring back school lunches for all students.

Under the FF proposal, taxpayers earning more than $300,000 would pay more taxes so school districts could choose to serve free meals to all students. Districts would have to participate in some federal programs first to get as many federal dollars as possible, but the state would cover any costs that the federal programs don’t cover.

“Children had better nutritious meals at school, they didn’t have to resort to starvation. We’ve seen what he does before,” said Ashley Wheeland, director of public policy for the nonprofit Hunger Free Colorado. “Everyone knows that children need food to learn.”

The school lunch program determines eligibility using federal poverty guidelines that are not adjusted by state. In Colorado, where the cost of living is high, proponents of the FF proposal believe there are children who don’t qualify for subsidized meals, but whose families still struggle to pay for healthy food. .

Colorado renters are burdened with costs — spending 30% or more of their income on housing costs — at the eighth highest rate in the nation, according to a study reported by the Denver Post.

This year, a family of four must earn less than $51,338 to qualify for subsidized meals under federal guidelines. A family of four in Colorado needs $73,132 to meet their basic needs, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Living Wage Calculator.

Danielle Bock, director of school nutrition in Greeley-Evans District 6, said she’s spoken to families earning just over the limit who still need help. Sometimes they calculate that if they subtracted from their income the amount they have to spend each day on full-price lunches for their children, they would qualify for the subsidized meals.

Unfortunately, what families spend is not part of the calculation, Bock said.

If approved, the FF Proposal will operate as a grant program for school districts that choose to participate. They would have to join federal programs first to make sure they got as many federal dollars as possible, and the state would make up the difference.

If all districts participate, the measure is expected to cost about $100 million per year once fully operational, and slightly more in the first year. It would be paid for by limiting the number of state tax deductions taxpayers earning over $300,000 can claim, essentially taxing them more. According to a state tax analysis, the tax measure should bring in $100.7 million in fiscal year 2023-24, and increasing amounts each year thereafter.

How it would work

Colorado already covers the extra cost of meals for students who qualify for discounted meals, making them free for families.

This year, lawmakers proposed state legislation to expand that so that the state budget would cover the cost of all students not eligible for subsidized meals, but the proposal did not pass. Lawmakers who opposed the bill worried about the cost and wondered if the money was better spent elsewhere.

At least two other states, California and Maine, have passed legislation to create free school meals for all students. A few others are running pilot programs or have raised eligibility levels therefore more students would qualify, which states have traditionally not adjusted for.

Colorado has already sought permission to use Medicaid as a way to directly qualify students who receive this benefit, even if their families do not complete the required free meal forms. School lunch operators believe that if school districts are able to use Medicaid data to qualify students, fewer children will fall through the cracks.

The measure also requires eligible districts to apply for and administer the Community Eligibility Provision program. This program allows a district to no longer require families to fill out a free lunch eligibility form and gives districts more federal money. In exchange, the district agrees to provide free meals to all students.

Depending on the percentage of eligible students, federal money may be enough to cover the entire program, but not necessarily in all cases. Under the FF proposal, when this is not enough, state money would cover the difference.

In other cases, an entire district might not qualify for the program, but a subset of schools would, and the district would have to operate some schools with the program and some without.

Erika Edwards, president of public policy and legislation for the Colorado School Nutrition Association, said her association was concerned about the challenges facing districts, but still signed on to support the proposal.

“I assume there are districts where it won’t make sense, but that number is probably low,” Edwards said.

Another possible challenge, Edwards said, is that when meals are free for all students, more eat the meals, requiring districts to have the capacity to produce more food. With the lack of staff, this can be difficult.

The proposal also aims to address some of these issues, but that would not happen in the first year.

Grants to enable free school meals would begin in the 2023-24 school year. In 2024-25, the state would also provide additional funds in the form of grants to allow districts to purchase local Colorado food for meals, help provide lunch employee stipends, and receive training. , equipment or help from a non-profit organization to prepare healthy school meals.

A neighborhood is already finding its own way

Supporters of the measure have already raised more than $1.5 million to help pass the measure. No organized opposition raises funds. Still, some people have raised objections to the proposal, including noting that it raises taxes for about 113,988 taxpayers, or less than 5% of the state’s estimated taxpayers, and that the money can also pay lunches for some children whose families can afford to eat. .

Bock fears that if the ballot measure fails, it could discourage lawmakers from trying another solution.

Still, advocates hope that if passed, the measure will allow more children to eat a good meal at school. This, in turn, would help students be better prepared to learn.

“I want all of our students to eat at school,” Bock said. “There is no healthier meal in a child’s day.”

In Greeley’s District 6, Bock said, leaders began looking for a way to keep school lunches free for all before the start of the school year, when it seemed clear the feds would eliminate waivers. .

Bock estimated that his program needed $2 million to continue free lunches this year, and the school board unanimously approved allocating that money.

Yet this year, the district, like others, pushed families to fill out eligibility forms. Bock said the district collected more forms “than ever in history.” Only about 2,000 out of 23,000 families did not fill out a form this year, she said. Usually about 8,000 families skip the forms.

This is another reason she says she knows families need help.

For next year, even if the ballot measure does not pass, Bock hopes to be able to continue offering free school meals. If the state receives approval to directly qualify students receiving Medicaid benefits, it expects it to change district percentages enough that use of the Community Eligibility Provision program can cover all costs. free meals.

If so, the measure might not be helpful to his district. Still, she helped work on it earlier, because she thinks it will help others.

“I know there are districts in Colorado that would benefit from this,” Bock said. “For me, it’s about changing the perception of what school meals are and trying to move us towards a society that sees school meals as a regular part of the school day that doesn’t require enforcement. .”

She and other advocates say a big benefit of universal free school meals is that they remove the stigma of poverty associated with eating a school meal.

Hunger Free Colorado’s Wheeland says stigma also contributes to the fact that about 40 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches still don’t eat lunch at school.

Bock wants eating a school lunch to be as normal as students reading in a school library.

“You see a student in the library, reading a book, you don’t say, ‘oh that poor kid has no books at home,'” Bock said.

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at [email protected].

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