Colorado voters will decide whether all school children get free lunches

During most pandemics, in every public school cafeteria across the country, every kid can get a free lunch, not just the poor. Everyone.

The program, which feeds 50.6 million U.S. students, expired in September, but some states are looking for ways to extend it. Both California and Maine have passed laws to fund universal free lunches.

In Colorado, a coalition of parents, teachers and anti-hunger advocates is pushing to make free school lunches permanent, and lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled Legislature have put it on the ballot.

GlendaRika Garcia, a bilingual food aid navigator for Hunger Free Colorado, strongly supports the idea.

“I think it’s really important for kids to be able to eat for free at school, for all families, for all kids,” said Garcia, a widow and single mother of four boys.

Two of them, Alonzo and Pedro, threw a football in front of their apartment building, as Garcia explained the healthy school meals proposal on the ballot.

“Kids can’t learn if they don’t get good nutrition,” said Garcia, whose job it is to sign people up for benefits and make sure they’re eligible.

The measure, known as Proposition FF, would use state funds to offer free meals to all public school students. It would fund pay raises for school cafeteria workers, help schools address staffing shortages and encourage schools to buy Colorado-grown foods. Some families, workers and farmers are cheering.

But critics point to a steep price tag for a new government program, which raises $100 million annually from taxes on households making $300,000 or more a year.

School-age members of families of four earning less than about $51,000 a year are eligible for free lunch. But supporters of the measure say more than 60,000 Colorado kids who can’t afford school meals right now aren’t eligible.

Garcia sees the proposal as a game changer, an equalizer. Depending on her work, Garcia sometimes qualified for free lunch for her sons and sometimes didn’t, a hit to her budget.

Another problem, Garcia said, is that some kids bully others to get a free lunch. It happened to her as a child when she qualified for free lunch, and it happened to one of her sons.

“They know that if people can’t afford it, they can identify. It hurts my heart,” he said.

His son Alonzo said some kids at his high school skip lunch rather than admit they qualify for free lunch.

“I think they’re embarrassed because they can’t afford it,” he said.

Many Colorado districts reported a marked increase during the pandemic in the consumption of free school lunches.

“We were feeding the kids something we’d never eaten before, and it was nice to see them come forward, and not just buy junk food,” said Andrea Cisneros, kitchen manager at West Woods Elementary School in Arvada.

Many students come to school without food, said Dan Sharp, director of school nutrition for Mesa County Valley School District 51 in Grand Junction.

The district saw a 40% year-over-year increase in meals served during the pandemic, Sharp said.

“I really believe there are a lot more families and students who could qualify but don’t, because of the stigma that comes with applying for free and reduced meals,” she said.

Advocates say they have conducted several food insecurity surveys throughout the pandemic, and according to a recent survey, 44% of respondents reported struggling to access nutritious food at home with children.

Whether the proposal passes or not, low-income students will continue to receive free meals through federal funding. There is no organized opposition to the measure, but it has its critics.

“Nobody wants to be mean to say this, but it’s a really stupid idea,” said John Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank. “Most kids in Colorado don’t need it. And in fact, the ones that do, already have it.”

The group’s voter guide recommends a no vote

“The proposition is, ‘Hey, let’s let rich people buy our kids lunch,'” he said. “This is another extension of state bureaucracy that is simply not necessary.”

The governor told Colorado Public Radio’s Colorado Matters that he hasn’t made up his mind about how he will vote.

“I don’t mind the funding system, but at the same time I ask myself, ‘If we had it, would it be better to be able to pay teachers better, reduce class sizes?’ Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat. “Or is it the best use of lunch for upper-middle income families?”

He added that the measure “doesn’t affect state funding one way or the other because it’s effectively revenue-neutral with the process.”

His Republican opponent appeared to be leaning toward supporting Proposition FF in his interview on the show.

“I haven’t had a chance to see it, but I want to make sure every child has access to healthy food and lunch, so I’m definitely open to it,” said Heidi Ganahl.

The Common Sense Institute, a nonpartisan free-market think tank, analyzed the measure and raised several concerns, with modeling showing it could be underfunded or raise more money than needed.

“There needs to be some better oversight of the program so that costs are managed well and they don’t develop a huge surplus,” said Steven Byers, the group’s senior economist.

Despite concerns about cost, universal free school lunches appear to be popular across the country.

California has allocated $650 million from its state budget to fund and support its universal free school meals program for the 2022-23 school year. Maine’s program was estimated by lawmakers to cost about $34 million a year.

Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and North Carolina have introduced similar bills to the Colorado ballot, most of them during the current legislative session. All of them are still in committee and have yet to go for a vote.

A June 2022 report by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank focused on social and economic research, found that 76% of adults living with children enrolled in public school and 67% of adults not living with children enrolled in public school support permanency. Free school meals.

This story is part of a partnership that includes Colorado Public Radio, NPR and KHN.

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