Free school meals for all students coming to most Colorado districts

Several Colorado school districts, including Jeffco, Cherry Creek, Aurora, and Adams 12, plan to offer free school meals to all students beginning in the fall of 2023 through a new state program funded by a voter-approved tax measure that affects high-income earners.

Of the two dozen counties surveyed by Chalkbeat, 17 plan to offer free meals to everyone next year. But some areas are unstable, including Denver and Douglas County, Colorado’s two largest.

Brehan Riley, director of school nutrition at the Colorado Department of Education, said of school district officials: “There seems to be a lot of interest, but people are still unsure. They want to understand a little better.”

Called Healthy School Meals for All, the program aims to ensure students get the nutritional fuel they need to learn, and to remove the stigma that sometimes comes with delivering free meals based on current income.

The initiative comes just after two school years when the federal government waives income eligibility requirements for federally subsidized meals and allows schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students. The exemptions expired this fall, but lawmakers and advocates have found a way to bring back free meals for next year by asking Colorado voters to approve new funding through Proposition FF.

The voter said yes.

The measure will generate more than $100 million per year by reducing income tax deductions available to households earning $300,000 or more.

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Many district officials are enthusiastic about the possibility of feeding more students, as in the first two years of the pandemic. When school meals were free under the exemption, Boulder Valley officials saw a 40% increase in students eating school lunches, District 27J 20-30%, and Aurora 7-10%.

Jeffco’s general manager of food and nutrition services, Beth Wallace, said her district has seen a 30% increase in the number of students eating school lunches during the pandemic.

“We reach families who need extra help.” said. “They may not qualify for free and discount. [meals]but they are working families struggling to make ends meet.

His parents told him that they only let their children eat at school twice a week when their favorite food was offered, because they couldn’t pay for the meal every day.

“I’m so excited to be reaching out to these families,” she said.

Wallace also said that while students shouldn’t have a way to tell who gets free school lunch in the current system, some students are picking up clues. His own son encouraged him to have breakfast at school when he was little, but he said, “Mom, I don’t have breakfast. This is for free children.”

Some advocates say stigma also affects parents.

“In small communities, you know people who work at school and you might not want to say, ‘We need this help,'” said Ashley Wheeland, director of public policy at the nonprofit Hunger Free Colorado.

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To qualify for the universal free meal program, Colorado school districts will have to maximize the amount of federal meal dollars they receive by applying for a program called the Community Eligibility Clause. The national program helps cover the cost of universal free meals in schools where the majority of students whose families receive certain types of government assistance, such as food aid or Temporary Assistance to Families in Need. Families at these schools do not need to apply for free or discounted meal fees.

Currently, 107 Colorado schools in 26 districts offer universal free meals through the Community Eligibility Clause, according to the state education department. In regions like Harrison and Pueblo 60, which are participating region-wide, little will change next year. Districts will continue to offer free meals to all students.

But even Colorado schools that do not qualify for the Community Eligibility Procurement program will be able to offer free meals to all students next year, as they can take advantage of the proceeds from Proposition FF. Families will still need to fill out applications for free and discounted meal prices.

Some district officials say they are concerned about the confusion for families who have to fill out a meal application for a child, not a sibling attending a Community Eligible School compliant.

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“You can see how a parent says, ‘I don’t understand,'” Riley said.

The idea, he said, is that both schools are maximizing the federal dollars they bring in for food, but they use two different mechanisms to do so.

Along with concerns about bureaucratic details, some school meal service leaders say they are concerned about staff shortages, supply chain disruptions and the need for new equipment to meet growing food demand.

Wallace at Jeffco said having adequate food storage and cooking capacity has always been a concern, but is confident the area can make it work as they manage during the pandemic, when more students are eating school lunches.

He said counties can get better food prices with more meal volumes. This could mean a fruit selection like strawberries for more weeks in the school year, even if prices go up a bit.

Under the universal meal program, Riley said, counties can also remove the administrative hassle of trying to collect unpaid meal debts—the fees that arise when students eat at school but aren’t eligible for free meals and don’t have the money to pay them. She said she’s heard from school nutrition leaders that food debt has risen again since pandemic exemptions expired.

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter working on early childhood issues and early literacy at Chalkbeat. Contact Ann at [email protected]


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