All Colorado children could get free school meals under proposed law

Bill would cost state up to $105M, advocates estimate

By: - February 8, 2022 5:00 am
school lunch

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

“By providing healthy school meals free for all public school students, we will take away the stigma and embarrassment that has been a regular part of the school meals experience for kids from low-income families,” Hunger Free Colorado CEO Marc Jacobson said during a virtual news conference Feb. 2. Hunger Free Colorado, which pushes for greater food access around the state, is backing the effort along with the American Heart Association, Colorado Dental Association and Education Reform Now Advocacy, among others.

Senate Bill 22-87 — sponsored by Sens. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood and Rhonda Fields of Aurora, along with Reps. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez of Denver and Dafna Michaelson Jenet of Commerce City — is scheduled for its first committee hearing Feb. 16. Public opposition has yet to emerge, though the bill would come with a big price tag for the state.


Nonpartisan legislative staff had not posted a fiscal analysis of the legislation online as of Monday. But advocates estimate that 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 that’s something that is very doable and is needed,” Jacobson said. “Our kids’ health, academic success and overall wellbeing is definitely worth investing in now more than ever.”

Under SB-87, school food authorities — governing bodies that run federally approved nutrition programs at one or more schools — would be eligible for grants to purchase produce, meat and dairy products that are grown, raised or processed in Colorado. School food authorities could access additional funding to increase pay for the people who prepare and serve meals.

“If we’re trying to address equity in our schools and in our communities, we also have to do that in our fields and in the farmworker spaces that are so critical to 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 goods. Meza spoke during the virtual news conference.

Qualifying for free school meals

In 2021, school lunches were free for all students thanks to federal COVID-19 relief legislation. For many districts, that’s still the case.

“Breakfast and lunch are currently free for those districts that have opted into the Seamless Summer Option, a flexibility that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has allowed for this school year,” Colorado Department of Education spokesperson Jeremy Meyer said in an email. “The majority of CO’s public districts have utilized this option. There are two public school districts that are not offering this program at this time.”

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

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

Our kids’ health, academic success and overall wellbeing is definitely worth investing in now more than ever.

– Hunger Free Colorado CEO Marc Jacobson

Advocates say the current income guidelines for free and reduced meals don’t adequately identify families in need.

In Colorado, a single parent with two kids typically must earn less than $28,549 per year for the children to qualify for free meals, or less than $40,627 for reduced-price meals. But many families who earn 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 afford child care, housing, transportation, food and other basic living expenses. In Denver County, they’d need to earn around $95,000.

Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Denver Democrat, highlighted how the proposed change could benefit families where one or more people is living in the U.S. without authorization.

“If part of the family is here undocumented, they may not feel comfortable sharing information for fear of what could happen to their family,” Gonzales-Gutierrez said during the news conference. The bill would “make it much easier for them, so they don’t have to try to kind of navigate that, and (so) that those children will have equal access to those same types of services.”

New way to count at-risk students

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are looking into new ways to quantify a district’s proportion of “at-risk” students who are more likely to fail or drop out of school. Colorado currently uses the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at a given school, along with the number of students just beginning to learn English, to calculate how much extra state funding the school needs to serve at-risk students.

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

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

But many families didn’t fill out application forms last year to prove their kids would qualify for free or reduced meals — which appears to have caused an artificial decrease in the official numbers of at-risk students enrolled at Colorado schools.

Lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee recently approved Gov. Jared Polis’ request for an extra $91 million in K-12 funding for the current year to help districts address the potential undercount.

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

Under the bill, the state commissioner of education would convene a working group for devising and implementing a new at-risk measure by the 2023-2024 budget year. The measure would have to incorporate a school’s percentage of students who are federally eligible for free meals — as it already does — but would also have to account for the number of families enrolled in Colorado’s Medicaid program for low-income people and people with disabilities. Additionally, the at-risk measure would need to include a “neighborhood socioeconomic-status index” that accounts for characteristics of the school community such as median household income and rate of homeownership.

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 sits on the interim school finance committee.

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


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Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Faith Miller was a reporter with Colorado Newsline covering the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories.