Tanna Schut and her family have never qualified for Colorado’s free and reduced school lunch program.
Schut’s two kids attend weekly therapy sessions for health reasons. One of her children attends school in Pueblo County. Her second will start school next fall.
“We already pay about $ 25 for a therapy session and then have to pay $ 2.50 a meal for one child,” Schut said. “Next year, I will have two children attending school so that will be $ 5. It starts to add up and it kind of does take a toll on the family when you are always having to pay for these school lunches. ”
Knowing how difficult it can be to ensure children don’t go hungry during the school day, Schut has become an advocate for the Healthy School Meals for All bill, also known as House Bill 1414which would provide free meals for all public school students in Colorado.
The bill passed through the Colorado General Assembly with bipartisan support on Tuesday and will appear on the ballot in November for voters’ approval.
The bill would generate funding for school districts to pay for lunch for all by cutting the amount of itemized and standardized tax deductions Coloradans who make more than $ 300,000 in adjusted gross income can take.
“We don’t think there should be any barrier to school lunch,” said Ashley Wheeland, director of public policy at Hunger Free Colorado, an advocacy organization supporting the bill. “Different families have different needs.”
Under the National School Lunch Program’s income guidelines for the 2021-22 school year, a family of three must make less than $ 28,548 annually to qualify for free meals and less than $ 40,626 to qualify for reduced-price meals.
The annual median income in Colorado is about $ 75,231 for an average family size of 2.6 people, according to the 2020 US Census. In Pueblo County, the annual median income is $ 49,979 with about 2.5 persons per household.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government had reimbursement for school meals for all,” Wheeland said. “We have seen a pretty big increase in kids across the state participating, showing that there was a need for families just above the free and reduced lunch level that are struggling to pay their bills and cover those costs.”
“It really helped them to be able to send their kids to school and know they weren’t going to go hungry,” she said.
But with that federal support sunsetting, the November ballot issue will look to make free meals the norm in Colorado schools.
Schut said she has heard some skepticism toward the bill. Some have said it would result in food waste, but Schut believes it is important to give children the option to eat healthier meals through the program.
“If we give kids the option to eat those healthy meals and continue to give them that option, they are going to eat those healthy meals,” she said. “They are going to turn to those healthy meals at some point because they are going to see the difference in themselves.”
Pueblo D60 a leader in providing free school meals
About 74.4% of students at Pueblo School District 60, which serves the city of Pueblo, qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to the Colorado Department of Education.
With a relatively high percentage of qualified students, the district has chosen to implement the CDE’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program, under which all students have access to school meals, free of charge for the next three school years. The district also offers free breakfast.
“It’s one of the leaders in the state and has really led the way in removing that barrier,” Wheeland said.
Not all schools in Pueblo District 60 benefited from the CEP program prior to the pandemic, but the district opted to include all schools in the program this year.
“With COVID and more families applying for (assistance through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), there was a significant need in the community,” said Pueblo D60 Director of Nutrition Services Dana Elkins Greene.
While Pueblo D60 students will receive free school meals for the next three years regardless of the November vote’s outcome, Elkins Greene said she hopes school districts throughout the nation will benefit from free lunch programs.
Waivers significantly increased school meal consumption in Pueblo D70
About 45% of students in Pueblo County School District 70 qualify for free or reduced-price lunch – significantly fewer than in Pueblo D60.
While not classified as a CEP district, Pueblo D70 has nonetheless seen significant benefits from federal school meal waivers during the pandemic, the district’s Director of Nutrition Services Brian Axworthy said.
“Our district has experienced a 20% bump in participation because the meals have been free,” he said. “We were able to expand some of our breakfast in the classroom programs to more schools because it was free.”
“Even in some of our schools with very low free and reduced rates the students participated in the breakfast program just because it was free,” he said.
Pueblo D70 plans to continue its summer lunch program this summer, from June 6 to July 21. The district will provide free lunch for individuals age 18 and younger from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm, Monday through Thursday.
Participating locations include South Mesa Elementary School, Vineland Elementary School and Liberty Point International. Students do not have to attend the participating schools to receive free lunch. Adults older than 18 will be charged $ 2.50 for a meal.
“That’s most likely going to be different from the past few years,” Axworthy said. “During COVID, we were able to bundle meals and hand them out cold for families to warm them up at home.
“If the government does not change their minds on all the waivers, then we have to have parents and families come inside the building and eat lunch on premises, (and) then they can leave,” he said.
Pueblo D60 will also continue its free summer lunch program at various mobile sites. Locations have yet to be determined, Elkins Greene said.
Pueblo Chieftain reporter James Bartolo can be reached by email at [email protected]