Among the bills being bandied about at the State Capitol this session is Senate Bill 22-087 “Healthy School Meals for All.” The bill would allow participating school districts in the state to provide school meals to all students, without the need to pay or qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program.
“We will take away the stigma that has been a part of the lunchroom experience,” Marc Jacobson, the CEO for Hunger Free Colorado said, during the legislation announcement press conference.
Students across Colorado have had access to free school breakfasts and lunches for the 2021-22 school year as part of federal efforts to reduce the harm caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Hunger and education advocates supporting the Healthy School Meals for All bill say there are good reasons to continue the practice of universal free food at public schools permanently though.
An estimated 40 percent of Colorado school-age children qualify for food assistance. For Colorado Springs District 11, that number is more than 56 percent. Several school district representatives and parents who participated in the bill’s launch press conference said getting households, especially those including individuals with uncertain immigration status, to submit the necessary paperwork to qualify children for the federal assistance is tough.
Bill co-sponsor Sen. Brittany Pettersen, a Democrat representing SD-22 in Jefferson County, said children that do receive the food benefits face a social penalty.
“I remember shame and waiting till the end of the line so no one would see me getting checked off that list,” she said.
The program would use Medicaid eligibility tracking to identify students who would still qualify for free or reduced food through the federal program. The bill’s sponsors estimate about $75 million to $105 million would still need to come out of state coffers annually to cover the rest.
“It’ll pay real dividends for our kids and for Colorado,” Jacobson said, pointing to studies done on the disrupting effects hunger can have on learning and extracurricular participation.
Also part of the bill, are provisions for creating parent and student advisory committees to push for more fresh food and scratch cooking within participating food service programs, as well as grant money for those programs to purchase more local produce.
Roberto Meza, a Colorado farmer and the vice president of the National Young Farmers Coalition said that the bill’s local produce component would help ensure Colorado farming longevity. “This is what we should have done from the very beginning,” he said.
The school meal bill is currently under consideration in the legislative