Colorado voters to decide in November whether the state should offer free meals to all students

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Posted at 4:45 PM, Aug 11, 2022

DENVER — Colorado voters will decide in November whether they want to change the state’s tax code to pay for free school meals for all students regardless of their circumstance.

The initiative made it on the November ballot after state lawmakers passed House Bill 22-1414 this year.

“Districts who participate would get reimbursed for every meal they serve. So, they could serve any kid, there would be no difference between students who qualify for free and reduced lunch and those who make a little more,” said Ashley Wheeland, director of public policy for Hunger Free Colorado.

The question comes following the end of a federal program that offered waivers to school districts to offer free meals to students during the pandemic. Beginning this school year, students will have to start paying for their meals again.

Jefferson County Public Schools reported that before the pandemic waiver program, it was serving about 20,000 meals a day. However, that jumped to roughly 40,000 meals a day during the waiver program.

“We have a pilot [program] that proved the need, that kids will eat if the food is there,” Wheeland said.

The ballot initiative would extend the program permanently so that all Colorado students would have access to a free, healthy meal regardless of their needs. Wheeland says in particular, it will help families who are on the cusp of needing a free or reduced lunch but who don’t qualify.

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.

“I personally felt very left out and stigmatized because I always had to benefit from those free and reduced meals,” Cieraszynski said.

He was embarrassed whenever the kitchen staff would announce out loud that he was a recipient of free and reduced lunch while serving him.

“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. So, he supports the ballot initiative.

The program would cost the state around $101 million annually. The money would come from reducing tax deductions for people earning $300,000 or more. It would be limited to $12,000 tax deductions for individual earners and $16,000 for joint filers.

The new state funds would supplement federal funding that districts and schools can claim by participating in eligible programs.

Along with offering free meals, the initiative would serve as a grant program to allow local school districts to buy fresh food from local farmers. It would also offer grants to schools to upgrade their kitchen equipment so that they can cook the meals from scratch.

“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 Zander Kaschub, a kitchen manager at Swanson Elementary.

Colorado voters to decide in November whether the state should offer free meals to all students

Kaschub’s school has a high rate of students who rely on free and reduced lunches. Even if the ballot measure passes, there will be a gap year between the time the federal program expires and the state program begins. He’s worried about having to turn students away.

“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.

He’s 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.

The funding would also go to pay kitchen staff more to help attract and retain employees. Kaschub says his district is currently down nearly 80 employees in food services. He’s hopeful the additional money will help.

Critics, however, argue that not everyone needs a free meal and it’s unfair to make some Coloradoans pay for other people's kids.

Ultimately, though, it will be the voters who decide in November.