DENVER -- For the second year in a row, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is providing free meals to all students in public K-12 schools as part of COVID-19 relief funding.
But rather than a temporary pandemic benefit, many advocates and parents are hoping the free meals will become a permanent part of the school day.
Benefits of universal free school meals
The first problem the program seeks to address is child hunger.
Denver parent Marisol Vasquez volunteers in her children’s schools in Denver Public Schools (DPS) and said she regularly sees hungry kids.
“I see kids come in the office (saying), 'I need a snack,' or 'My head hurts,' or 'Call my mom because I want to go home,'” Vasquez said.
While Vasquez’s family meets the income qualifications for food assistance, she said she believes even children from wealthier families should be able to have free lunch.
“It should be free for everyone,” Vasquez said.
Before the pandemic, according to annual Kids Count reports, around 40% of Colorado kids qualified for free lunch and between 7% and 8% qualified for a reduced-price meal. The rest paid full price. In 2018, DPS stopped pressuring families to pay what they owed, but those families racked up $350,000 in debt.
Theresa Peña, coordinator of outreach and engagement with DPS food and nutrition services, said offering free lunches last year to all students eliminated the problem with debt and removed divisions between students.
“We think that breaking bread together eliminates a stigma of who school meals are for,” Peña said.
Peña added that DPS has an initiative to encourage all students to eat together as part of their learning day.
"If you haven't had a good meal, or if you've had junk food for breakfast, you're not going to be really prepared for that academic challenge that day," Peña said.
A recent report by Tufts University found that the healthiest meals most children eat are the ones provided in schools.
Katie Jeter, resources manager for JeffCo Public Schools’ Food and Nutrition Services, said the food served in school cafeterias has to meet strict federal guidelines.
“We can't just serve exactly what the kids want to eat, and some of these kids when they come to school, it's their only quality meal for the day,” Jeter said.
Challenges implementing universal free school meals
While advocates tout the benefits of free meals, there were some unintended consequences.
Last year, the Colorado Children’s Campaign said around 50,000 fewer Colorado students turned in the free and reduced price lunch application. Because funding for school districts is based on how many kids qualify for a free or reduced lunch, that missing information can affect school budgets.
Stephanie Perez-Carillo, policy and partnerships manager with the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said state lawmakers are currently working on changes to the school finance formula to use a different and more accurate measure of poverty.
“There are other proxies that feel more appropriate and accurate of a child's school experience and living situation,” Perez-Carillo said.
One possibly proxy could be Medicaid enrollment. Perez-Carillo said that would give a more accurate count of at-risk kids, because Colorado has a higher Medicaid enrollment than it does for other government programs.
But tracking poverty isn’t the only challenge with providing free lunch to all students. A new survey from the School Nutrition Association found 97% of school nutrition directors are concerned about continued pandemic supply chain disruptions, 82% are concerned about low meal participation, and 90% worry about staff shortages.
Denver7 reported recently that JeffCo Public Schools and District 49 are among the Colorado school districts struggling to hire kitchen and cafeteria staff.
There’s also a question of who should pay for school meals — the federal government or states? Last month, California and Maine became the first states to pass laws providing free lunch to all students beginning in the 2022-2023 school year. Both states' bills had bipartisan support.
The Colorado Department of Education estimates it would cost the state $298 million dollars to implement its own free breakfast and free lunch program for all students. CDE data and evaluation manager Sarah McKasson emphasized this figure is just an estimate, based on the federal reimbursement Colorado received in the 2020-2021 school year.
Rather than a state funded program, advocacy group Hunger Free Colorado is pushing for congress to pass a national universal free school meals program.
Ashley Wheeland, director of public policy for Hunger Free Colorado, said she hopes feeding children is one thing politicians from both sides of the aisle can agree on.
"We would hope having healthy food is as important (to politicians) as books for kids. They need healthy food to be able to concentrate, to be able to participate, and to be happy," Wheeland said.
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