DENVER — Each day inside the school cafeteria is a controlled chaos. One by one, thousands of little bellies come to fill up before little minds go to work in the classroom.
However, a report by the Education Data Initiative estimates that more than 1.54 million students nationwide can’t afford school meals. In Colorado, roughly 35,472 children are food insecure but also ineligible for federal assistance. The average lunch debt per child is $179. As a state, Colorado faces about $6 million in meal debt.
During the pandemic, food insecurity became a real problem for a lot of families. The city and county of Denver reports that food insecurity surged from 11% to 33% since the beginning of the pandemic and that communities of color were impacted the most.
To help, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer waivers to districts to make school meals free for all students.
Congress then extended the free meal program with the Keep Kids Fed Act. However, that expired over the summer.
Now, a question on the November ballot asks voters whether they want to create a state program to pay for free meals for all public schools students.
What Proposition FF Does
Proposition FF asks voters if they want to create a statewide program to offer free meals for all public school students in the state.
The program would be paid for in two ways: through federal reimbursements and a new cap on charitable tax deductions for those making $300,000 or more.
The tax deductions would be limited to $12,000 for individual earners and $16,000 for joint filers. A nonpartisan legislative analysis found the change would apply to roughly 114,000 people — roughly 5% of the state’s taxpayers.
The new state funds would supplement federal funding that districts and schools can claim by participating in eligible programs.
If the measure passes, the state program would reimburse school districts that offer free breakfast and lunch to all public school students regardless of their income beginning in the 2023-2024 school year.
The following year, the program would also provide grant funding for districts to buy fresh, locally-grown ingredients for meals. Those grants could also be used to pay cafeteria staff more or to pay for better equipment and more training on how to prepare healthy meals using the fresh ingredients.
Supporters say this will help students focus better in school, improving their behavior and grades.
A Student’s Story
University of Denver student Daniel Cieraszynski knows what it’s like to need a free meal. His father lost his job when Cieraszynski was in middle school, and the family had to survive on only his mother’s paycheck. She was working as a paraprofessional in a local school at the time and was not earning enough to fully support the family.
“That first day was weird because I was still kind of in a lot of shock of just my dad losing his job,” Cieraszynski said. “I personally felt very left out and stigmatized because I always had to benefit from those free and reduced meals.”
He was embarrassed whenever the kitchen staff would announce out loud that he was a recipient of free and reduced lunch while serving him.
He would then have to go through a step-by-step process with the staff of what he was allowed to select for his meal.
“Sometimes, those meals didn't exactly fill me up and weren't exactly nutritious. And sometimes, I occasionally just wouldn't get lunch because of that embarrassment that I faced,” Cieraszynski said.
When he didn’t eat, it was harder to focus in school. He says he supports the ballot initiative.
More Than Free Meals
School kitchen staff are also excited about the prospect of Proposition FF.
Zander Kaschub is the manager of the kitchen at Swanson Elementary School, which has a high share of students who rely on free and reduced lunches.
There have been times when Kaschub has had to turn students away who couldn’t afford their meal, and each time he says it’s devastating as a school staff member.
“It’s heartbreaking if I ever have to turn a kid away because they can't afford to eat. I take that home with me. It's terrible,” Kaschub said.
Before the pandemic, Jefferson County was serving about 20,000 meals a day for students. During the pandemic, however, when the federal waivers were paying for the school meals, Kaschub says it jumped to 40,000 meals a day. He believes that’s proof that more students will accept the free meals if they are offered.
Kaschub is particularly excited about the chance to be able to cook fresh meals for the students with local ingredients, saying it will expose students to a wider variety of foods while allowing him more flexibility to come up with new recipes.
“Right now, our menus are, they're full of highly processed precooked food, canned vegetables and fruits. We can do better for our kids,” said Kaschub. “Kids don't have a lot of variety [in terms of] school food and so to give them an opportunity to experience new foods is also teaching them.”
The funding would also go toward paying kitchen staff more to help attract and retain employees. Kaschub hopes this will bring professionalism and cooking skills back into school kitchens.
Free Comes with a Cost
Michael Fields, a conservative political operative, is also a former teacher who used to teach fourth and sixth grade at a school where the majority of students were low-income and relied on free and reduced meals.
“We want to make sure that kids who need lunch have it,” Fields said.
However, Fields does not support Proposition FF. He says it’s unfair for a small group of Coloradans to be paying for the meals for all students in the state and that many students’ families can afford to pay.
He also supports the idea of bringing more healthy meals into school cafeterias, but he believes that conversation should happen at a district level.
He says he worries about the impact this will have on charitable giving since the tax deductions will be lower.
“I think a lot of people do give based on the tax incentives or we wouldn't have those out there to start with,” Fields said. “Is it more important for my kid to have a free lunch or is it more important for money to go to maybe a organizations helping homeless people or people on drugs or other kinds of charities?”
Fields says there are already state and federal programs to offer food support for students that will still be in place if the measure doesn’t pass.
Beyond that, he says any excess money from the program will not be returned to the taxpayer but will instead go back into the general fund for the state legislature to use as the choose.
With inflation and economic uncertainty, Fields does not believe now is the time to ask taxpayers, even high-income earners, to pay more.
For a time during the pandemic, the federal government offered a waiver to pay for the lunches of all students. However, that program ended over the summer.
Now, it is up to Colorado voters to decide in November whether the state should pick up where the federal government left off and start a program to offer free, healthy meals to all public school students.
Full ballot guide
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