Colorado voters will decide whether to expand free meals at school for all students

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Ash Galaviz’s holds their lunch at DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School. March 22, 2022.

Colorado voters will decide whether to fund free meals for school children under a proposal passed by state lawmakers.

House Bill 1414 — the Healthy School Meals for All initiative — is headed to the governor’s desk. The bill takes effect only if it is approved by voters this November.

If passed, it would provide free meals to all students, including those who are not eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

During the pandemic, federal waivers allowed all students to access free meals. But those waivers are set to expire this summer. Thousands of students, especially those whose families don’t qualify for free or reduced meals but struggled to make ends meet, took advantage of the meals, according to school nutrition directors. They reported participation in free school meals increased 20 to 40 percent.

“Hunger is real in our schools,” said bill sponsor state Sen. Rhonda Fields, a Democrat from Aurora. “If you’re hungry you can’t learn … just like a child needs books, they need to be fed.”

More than 40 percent of families with children reported being food insecure, according to surveys of Coloradans during the pandemic conducted by the nonprofit Hunger Free Colorado.

Earlier in the legislative session, another proposal called for funding free school meals through state and federal funds. That didn’t move forward because of issues including its high cost. But a coalition of child hunger advocates, parents and teachers pushed forward, saying it’s time to end the stigma children who qualify for subsidized meals face.

“We don’t need another kid shamed because they can’t afford to eat,” said Fields.

State Sen. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood said people testified in committee meetings about having numbers written on their arms to identify them for the free lunch line.

“I know what that was like as a kid who relied on the free and reduced program and waiting until nobody was around so that they wouldn’t see me go through the line and get checked out in another way or choosing not to eat at all because of how embarrassed I felt,” she said.

To pay for the program, the Healthy School Meals for All proposal would cap certain deductions for individuals earning more than $300,000 ($12,000 for single filers and $16,000 for joint filers). Current law caps deductions for taxpayers with incomes more than $400,000. A fiscal analysis estimates that would collect $100 million to fund the bulk of the program.

Some Republicans voted against the measure, arguing in committee that higher-income children who don’t need the program could use it and money should instead target academic programs. 

Starting in 2023-24, Colorado’s school districts could also potentially get the federal government to pay for more meals by using a different measure to count children in poverty. Now, families must now fill out applications for subsidized lunches. But the state is participating in a federal demonstration project to use Medicaid eligibility to identify students who are eligible for federal school meals programs.

The bill also distributes grants to promote the purchase of Colorado-grown, raised or processed products and could potentially raise wages for school nutrition workers.