All Colorado children could get free school meals under proposed law

A group of Democratic state lawmakers and a coalition of advocacy groups want to permanently provide free breakfast and lunch at schools for all K-12 students, regardless of income level.

“By providing free healthy school meals to all students in public schools, we will eliminate the stigma and embarrassment that is a regular part of the school lunch experience for children from low-income families,” said the CEO of Hunger Free Colorado’s Marc Jacobson during a virtual press conference on February 2. Hunger Free Colorado, which lobbies for better food access statewide, is supporting the effort with the American Heart Association, Colorado Dental Association, and Education Reform Now Advocacy, among others.

Senate Bill 22-87 – sponsored by the senses. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood and Rhonda Fields of Aurora, along with Representatives Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez of Denver and Dafna Michaelson Jenet of Commerce City — is scheduled for her first committee hearing on February 16. Public opposition has yet to emerge, although the bill would come at a high price for the state.

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Nonpartisan legislative staff had not posted a financial analysis of the legislation online Monday. But advocates estimate Colorado could pay between $75 million and $105 million to reimburse schools for meals that aren’t covered by the federal government, according to Jacobson.

“We think it’s something very doable and necessary,” Jacobson said. “The health, academic success and general well-being of our children are more than ever worth investing in.”

Under SB-87, school food authorities — governing bodies that deliver federally approved nutrition programs in one or more schools — would be eligible for grants to purchase cultured produce, meat and dairy. , raised or processed in Colorado. School food authorities could access additional funds to increase the salaries of people who prepare and serve meals.

“If we try to ensure equity in our schools and in our communities, we must also do it in our fields and in the spaces of the agricultural workers who are so essential in providing these meals for our students, said Roberto Meza. , co-founder of the East Denver Food Hub, a social enterprise that distributes local produce, eggs, meat and other products. Meza spoke during the virtual press conference.

Eligibility for free school meals

In 2021, school meals were free for all students thanks to federal COVID-19 relief legislation. For many districts, this is still the case.

“Breakfast and lunch are currently free for districts that have opted in to the seamless summer option, a flexibility that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has allowed for this school year,” said Colorado Department of Education spokesman Jeremy Meyer in an email. “The majority of public districts in CO have used this option. There are two public school districts that do not currently offer this program.

The Seamless Summer Option program “provides free meals to all students and is marketed that way, regardless of families’ personal financial circumstances,” Meyer added. But without further state or federal legislation, districts will resume serving free or reduced-price meals only to students who can prove they are eligible for the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program.

Assuming it is passed, SB-87 would only take effect if Colorado were allowed to participate in a federal demonstration program that would directly certify families enrolled in Medicaid benefits for the free or reduced meal program, making meals of those students eligible for federal reimbursement.

The health, academic success and general well-being of our children deserve more than ever to be invested.

– Marc Jacobson, CEO of Hunger Free Colorado

Advocates say current income guidelines for free and reduced meals do not properly identify families in need.

In Colorado, a single parent with two children typically must earn less than $28,549 a year for the children to qualify for free meals, or less than $40,627 for discounted meals. But many families earning more than that still face food insecurity.

For example, the Living Wage Calculator developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that a single parent with two children living in El Paso County would need to earn more than $83,000 before taxes to pay for child care, housing , transportation, food and other basic livelihoods. expenses. In Denver County, they should earn about $95,000.

Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Democrat from Denver, pointed out how the proposed change could benefit families where one or more people are living in the United States without permission.

“If part of the family is here without papers, they may not feel comfortable sharing information out of fear of what might happen to their family,” Gonzales-Gutierrez said at the press conference. The bill would “make it easier for them, so they don’t have to try to figure it out, and (so) that these kids have equal access to those same kinds of services.”

New way to count students at risk

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are exploring new ways to quantify the proportion of a district’s “at-risk” students who are more likely to fail or drop out of school. Colorado currently uses the percentage of students who are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch at a given school, as well as the number of students who are just beginning to learn English, to calculate additional funding for the State needed by the school to serve at-risk students.

Individual school boards can determine how to use at-risk funding based on the needs of their community, said Rep. Julie McCluskie, Democrat Dillon who chairs the interim school finance committee.

“I have no doubt that those dollars are going to mentoring, tutoring, curriculum, maybe professional development for teachers who need certifications or more training on how to work with students from the poverty,” McCluskie told Newsline. “These dollars can also be used for things like social-emotional (learning) services, counseling services, other things that our students need when they come from a poor background.”

But many families failed to fill out application forms last year to prove that their children would be entitled to free or reduced meals, which appears to have caused an artificial decrease in the official number of at-risk students enrolled in schools. Colorado schools.

Lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee recently approved Gov. Jared Polis’ request for $91 million in additional K-12 funding to help districts deal with potential undercount.

The Interim Legislative Committee on School Finances, which met when the General Assembly was not in session, last month approved a bill to overhaul how the state measures at-risk students at funding purposes. The legislation is based on the results of a January study by the Urban Institute, a national economic and social policy research body.

Under the bill, the state education commissioner would convene a task force to design and implement a new at-risk measure by the 2023-24 budget year. The metric should incorporate the percentage of students at a school who are federally eligible for free meals — as they already are — but should also take into account the number of families enrolled in Colorado’s Medicaid program for people low income and people with disabilities. In addition, the at-risk measure should include a “neighborhood socioeconomic status index” that takes into account characteristics of the school community such as median household income and homeownership rate.

Some other states have already started using community factors to determine at-risk funding and are doing it well, said Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who serves on the interim schools finance committee.

“Free, reduced lunch is not the best barometer of a student’s needs, particularly during the pandemic but also beyond, due to stigma and other factors,” Herod told Newsline. “So that community factor is really a better way to measure what the at-risk needs are and how much additional funding should come to schools.”

About Marjorie C. Hudson

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