Colorado Lawmakers Push To Expand School Lunch Programs To High Schoolers

<p>Sam Brash/CPR News</p>
<p>A DPS student in lunch line.</p>
Photo: DPS Student In The Lunch Line (SB)
A DPS student in lunch line.

In Pueblo, 75 percent of students in Kindergarten through 12th grade qualify for free lunch. Not all of them get it, however.

Colorado high school students who live in poverty have historically been locked out of free meals, but perhaps not for long. Lawmakers have advanced a bill that would make high schoolers eligible for free lunch. The bill has cleared the state House and the Senate Education Committee and will soon land in the hands of the Appropriations Committee.

The state says it would cost $464,000 to implement the change. Federal officials and the state team to reimburse schools for each lunch they serve. The state gives 40 cents to each school for each free or reduced-cost meal they give a student. Federal reimbursement makes up the rest.

In order to qualify for the free lunch, a student’s family has to make less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level — $32,630 per year for a family of four. In Pueblo, and for many students in districts across the state, many of them meet that threshold.

Pueblo City 60, the city’s main school district, has nearly 12,000 students who qualify for free lunch, and most of them are racial minorities. About 4,200 of the qualifying students are in high school. Under the proposal, for the first time, many of them would qualify for free school lunch.

Lawmakers and school officials say the change could make a difference in leveling the field among students. Studies have consistently shown that eating lunch at school raises academic performance, and administrators say students face stigma at school when they can’t afford meals. The Colorado Children’s Campaign said 14 percent of high school students don’t get enough to eat at home.

A fiscal note prepared for lawmakers said the state expects to serve more than 1.1 million reduced-cost lunches to high school students statewide next school year if the bill passes.