For all the awfulness of the COVID-19 pandemic, Colorado school nutrition advocates saw in it a major silver lining: It led the federal government to massively expand funding for school meals to the point where every student could eat for free.
School districts started serving thousands of more meals a day, proof that the pre-pandemic free-and-reduced meal program left too many empty bellies in Colorado’s classrooms, advocates said. And with the expiration of the program this summer, again too many kids are hungry this school year. Proposition FF aims to fix that by increasing the amount of taxes the wealthiest Coloradans pay.
“We require students to attend school for seven to eight hours a day,” Danielle Bock, nutrition services director for the Greeley-Evans School District, said. “That’s state law. We provide students everything they need to be successful — except food.”
Proposition FF would raise taxes by an estimated $100 million in the next full fiscal year, but it would just be the wealthiest Coloradans who directly foot the bill. Taxpayers with incomes of $300,000 a year or more would pay an estimated $884 more in taxes, on average, according to an analysis by nonpartisan legislative staff. Taxpayers with incomes lower than that wouldn’t see a change.
It needs the support of a simple majority of voters in this election to become law. If it passes, Colorado would join California and Maine as the only states offering school meals free of cost to students. Several other states are also exploring making free school meal programs permanent.
In Colorado, school districts across the state saw increased participation in school meals with the federal program. It eliminated the stigma that students previously on free and reduced lunch plans faced since everyone qualified, advocates said.
The old free-and-reduced meal program also left out families that made too much to qualify — about $51,000 a year for a family of four — but nonetheless struggled with the rising cost of living. The federal expansion allowed them to save money while safe knowing their kids would be well fed, Mesa County School District School Nutrition Director Dan Sharp.
Sharp said the public schools in Grand Junction fed about 4,000 more students daily under the federal program — a 40% increase over pre-pandemic levels. Since it expired this year, they’ve lost much of that increase. He’s also heard anecdotes of increased disruption and behavioral issues from principals with hungry children.
The Colorado Department of Education won’t have statewide numbers available until November. But officials there have heard many school districts reporting a 20% to 40% decrease in school meals served. For Sharp, that represents two years of data showing the program was a success.
“We saw kids every day, prior to COVID, sit in the cafeteria without lunch,” Sharp said. “They haven’t applied, or they have and want to avoid the stigma of being the poor kid, so they just don’t eat.”
Colorado school districts still feed students who can’t afford meals, but they may have the cost attached to their account as a school meal debt. It’s up to school districts to determine what to do about that debt, though they can’t withhold privileges or celebrations from students because they have outstanding debt, Sharp and Bock said.
Many districts end up absorbing the costs of outstanding debts through their general funds, they said. That in effect puts school lunches in opposition to things like teacher pay and salaries, they said. Proposition FF would stop that antagonism with a dedicated fund to feeding kids.
The measure has no organized opposition, but that doesn’t make it universally backed. The Centennial Insitute, a conservative policy organization housed at Colorado Christian University, urged a no vote on the proposition. It highlighted the price tag and the growth in government programs.
“Successful public policy is to help families feed their children at home, not create further government programs to feed children,” the Centennial Institute’s voter guide states.
The Common Sense Institute, a business-funded think tank, didn’t suggest voters support or oppose the measure. It did warn of uncertain revenue collections. The revenue collected under the program would be exempt from collection caps typical under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, meaning the state could keep any extra money, according to the Institute. Conversely, the program could also be jeopardized by under-collections.
It also noted that the affected taxpayers — about 113,000 Coloradans, or 4.4% of filers — would be paying for meals for about six students apiece if every Colorado school district opts into the program and every child participates.
But for Bock, the Greeley school district’s nutrition director, the benefits of fed kids, more able to learn and grow, is worth it.
“I understand the argument that we shouldn’t be buying their lunch,” Bock said of paying for lunch for families that can afford it themselves. “But I ask, at what cost are we making that wager? Because if we want to buy the lunch of the students who can afford it, the result of that is all kids will eat. It’s worth it to us to see that happen.”