Budget shortfall threatening free school breakfast, lunch in Colorado

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Posted at 11:43 PM, Mar 01, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-02 01:54:05-05

DENVER — A budget shortfall is threatening the future of free school breakfast and lunch in Colorado.

In November 2022, Colorado voters passed Proposition FF, which uses taxpayer dollars from households that make $300,000 per year or more to provide free breakfast and lunch to public school students. The program began in August 2023.

The Colorado Department of Education said the program's popularity has led to a $24 million funding gap this school year. The department has projected a nearly $50 million deficit for next school year.

In Shannon Solomon’s lunchroom at Fulton Academy of Excellence in Aurora, a successful school day doesn’t start without a full stomach.

“They know it’s for everybody. They just grab that, go to class, get the education they need to be the best versions of themselves,” said Solomon.

Participation in free school meal programs has skyrocketed since Prop FF took effect.

“We’re seeing [an] over 30% participation increase,” said Brehan Riley, executive director of school nutrition for the Colorado Department of Education.

Prop FF also created grant programs for schools to buy locally grown food and bumped up pay for cafeteria employees. Riley said those programs make up about $22 million of the cost for the next school year.

“We’ll have to see what the legislators do. But it’s a successful program in our state. Districts are working really hard, ensuring that healthy meals are being offered to their communities based on what those kids want. And I think that’s something to be proud of in our state,” said Riley.

Hunger Free Colorado said with nearly half of families struggling to afford certain household expenses, the organization is working with state lawmakers to find a solution to the shortfall.

“Being able to fund a program that provides free, healthy food for students is really helping these families not have to make a choice between having to invest in a school lunch or in some of these other essential expenses," said Erika Cervantes, director of organizing and community partnerships for Hunger Free Colorado.

The Joint Budget Committee will discuss how to tackle the shortfall on Monday, March 4.  

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