Proposition FF: Healthy meals for all public school students, explained

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Kids line up for breakfast at Carson Elementary, March 13, 2020.

A group of Colorado parents, students, teachers, anti-hunger advocates and other supporters spearheaded the campaign to pass The Healthy School Meals for All ballot measure.

For decades, many children in Colorado and the U.S. have lacked access to good quality meals at school, and also at home as well.  That’s contributed to a cascade of problems from hunger and food insecurity to obesity.

During the pandemic, the federal government provided universal free school lunches to all children, not just those from the poorest homes, who qualified for school meal programs. The move helped many families have better food security than they’d had in years. This initiative aims to make that change permanent in Colorado, by limiting tax deductions, but only for Colorado’s most affluent taxpayers.

If voters approve the measure, Proposition FF would create a program to provide access to free meals to all public school students in Colorado, and to offer grants to schools to help pay for those meals. That’s according to the state’s 2022 Ballot Information Book, also known as the Blue Book. Funding for the program would come from wealthier Coloradans, specifically via increased taxes on households with more than $300,000 in federal adjusted gross income by limiting state income tax deductions.

Beginning in 2024, the Colorado Department of Education must submit a report every two years to the state legislature on the implementation and progress of the school meal and grant programs created by the measure, according to the Blue Book. The agency must also contract with an independent auditor to conduct a financial and performance audit of the program. The audit report must be easily accessible by the public.

The initiative was placed on the ballot by the state legislature, which is currently controlled by Democrats. It passes with a majority vote.

Here’s the language you’ll see on the ballot:

Shall state taxes be increased $100,727,820 annually by a change to the colorado revised statutes that, to support healthy meals for public school students, increases state taxable income only for individuals who have federal taxable income of $300,000 or more by limiting itemized or standard state income tax deductions to $12,000 for single tax return filers and $16,000 for joint tax return filers, and, in connection therewith, creating the healthy school meals for all program to provide free school meals to students in public schools; providing grants for participating schools to purchase colorado grown, raised, or processed products, to increase wages or provide stipends for employees who prepare and serve school meals, and to create parent and student advisory committees to provide advice to ensure school meals are healthy and appealing to all students; and creating a program to assist in promoting colorado food products and preparing school meals using basic nutritious ingredients with minimal reliance on processed products?

How would it work?

Prop FF creates a program to provide access to free meals for all Colorado public school students and helps schools pay for the meals. It does this through a change in state law, Colorado Revised Statutes, raising $100 million a year. 

The change effectively increases state taxable income, but only for individuals who have federal taxable income of $300,000 or more. For that group, the measure would limit itemized or standard state income tax deductions to $12,000 for single tax return filers and $16,000 for joint tax return filers.

Who’s for it?

The pro side is led by Healthy School Meals for Colorado Students, a coalition of parents, educators and anti-hunger advocates. 

They say the new program will provide free, nutritious meals for all Colorado public schools by creating a statewide program. 

It would support Colorado farmers and ranchers by reimbursing school districts for buying locally sourced food. The measure would help equip schools to prepare and serve healthy school meals, by providing districts with grants for equipment upgrades and staff training to make healthy, from-scratch meals. It would also fund pay increases for frontline school cafeteria workers, helping schools dealing with staff shortages.

The measure would eliminate what the group described as arbitrary restrictions blocking meals for hungry kids. Nearly 70,000 Colorado kids can’t afford school meals, but do not qualify for free or reduced-price school meals either. Last year, temporary pandemic aid made all school meals free. As a result, many Colorado school districts saw a sharp increase, in the range of 20 percent to 40 percent more, in students participating in school meal programs, according to the group. 

Finally, proponents say the measure will create a sustainable, long-term funding source to provide free school meals for all. The $100 million raised each year would come from the top 3 percent of Colorado income earners, those making more than $300,000 a year, according to the group. If you don’t make that much, your taxes won’t be impacted by this ballot measure.

Who’s against it?

There is no organized opposition to this measure.

However, in the official state voter guide, the opposition arguments include that the measure raises taxes on some households at a time when inflation is high and the cost of living is increasing and that the state should not pay to feed kids who can afford to purchase a school meal or bring food from home.

Another opposition argument is that Colorado schools are underfunded and if voters want to increase taxes to help students, it would be better to give local school districts new funding to spend in other ways.

When lawmakers debated the measure, some Republicans voted against it. They argued in committee that higher-income children who don’t need the program could use it and money should instead fund academic programs. 

In its voter guide, the Independence Institute, a think tank advocating for limited government, recommended a NO vote, saying “while we are certain that parents have enjoyed access to free meals through the pandemic, that emergency has passed.” It also questioned whether a tax increase, even on the highest earners, to fund free meals “for all in perpetuity is necessary,” especially since low-income students will keep receiving free meals under current law.

Additionally, the Common Sense Institute, a nonpartisan free-market think tank analyzed the measure and raised several concerns.

According to the group’s ballot guide, more Coloradans would be impacted than proponents said, 4.4 percent (instead of 3 percent.) It found if all Colorado public school authorities take part, an additional 615,000 students will now become eligible to get free meals, a rise of 125 percent.

Next year, 114,000 Colorado taxpayers will be taxed to pay for the program, with an annual average increased tax bill of nearly $1,000. In a decade, the number of Coloradans paying for the program is anticipated to grow to as many as 339,000 taxpayers.

But according to Common Sense Institute, its modeling found funding could be higher than needed or too low to completely fund it.  Surplus revenues could exceed a billion dollars in a decade or it could be underfunded to the tune of $330 million annually, according to its ballot guide.

Proponents dispute that analysis, saying the institute seemed to multiply the cost of the program over ten years, rather than the year-to-year funding analysis that shows how the costs of the program are covered.

Proponents acknowledge any leftover funding will go to the general fund, as any extra costs would come out of it.  They say based on the data and analysis done by the legislative council those costs “will be minimal and the proposal will create a long-term program with long-term funding.”

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