DENVER — In November, Colorado voters passed Proposition FF, which will use taxpayer dollars to provide free breakfast and lunch to public school students beginning in the 2023-24 school year. But the state’s largest school district, Denver Public Schools, is still waiting for more information before deciding whether it will opt into the program.
DPS Spokesperson Rae Childress said a district committee will weigh the pros and cons and get public feedback in the spring.
“Denver Public Schools is looking forward to seeing how Prop FF can support our communities that desperately need it, but also making sure that we can continue the same federal funding for other programs,” Childress said.
Childress said one concern is how Proposition FF could affect federal Title I school funding. The federal government uses data from free and reduced lunch applications to determine the level of funding for Title I schools. If all kids receive free meals, it’s not clear if families will still fill out free and reduced lunch forms.
“Even if every student automatically receives free lunch, there is an incentive to apply for federally run programs, “ Childress said.
Colorado School Nutrition Association Board public policy and legislative chair Erika Edwards said families will still be encouraged to fill out free and reduced lunch forms, because under Proposition FF, schools are still required to access as much federal dollars for meals as possible. Proposition FF simply makes up the difference for students who don’t qualify for free and reduced lunch.
Edwards said districts that haven’t opted into the program yet will likely have until spring to figure out details, and she expects most will opt in.
“I think at some districts, that (formal decision-making) process just hasn't been able to play out quite yet,” Edwards said.
Douglas County School District Superintendent Erin Kane reassured the community this week that the district plans to opt into the free school meals, but admitted there are challenges to consider
“Our experience during (the pandemic) was that demand for lunch was about double based on it being free for everyone, and now that we're looking to operationalize free lunch for everyone, we need to think about things like making sure we have adequate staff,” Kane said.
In addition to cafeteria worker shortages, districts are facing food supply chain challenges and higher food costs. They’ll also have to plan for storing more food, and how to move more kids through the cafeteria lines. The Colorado School Nutrition Association said schools saw an average increase of 20-30% participation in school meals when they were free during the pandemic.