Colorado voters want universal free school meals
Officials expect most school districts to join program, but challenges remain
In the coming months, Colorado’s nearly 200 school districts will face a choice: Do they want to opt in to the voter-approved universal school meal program?
Nearly 57% of Colorado voters approved Proposition FF this month, a $100 million proposal that would provide free school meals to all students. The money comes from limiting tax deductions on filers who report $300,000 or more in annual income.
But it’s not as simple as cutting a check, its backers and officials say.
School cafeterias are facing the same staffing shortages and supply chain kinks as the rest of the service industry. The money from the proposal includes grants for things like wage stipends for school kitchen employees and buying local food and training and equipment, but those aren’t available until the 2024-25 school year — a year after money becomes available for universal free meals.
The nonprofit that wins the Proposition Ff-funded grant for local foods will be tasked with connecting schools with local producers and navigating regulations.
“The messaging is, for families, the meals will be at no cost,” Colorado School Nutrition Association public policy and legislative chair Erika Edwards said. The association backed the measure. “Most of the questions, changes, and unknowns will be at the district operations level. There’s a lot of unknowns that come with it.”
School districts already had some experience feeding all students at no cost to the families. For the first two years of the pandemic, the federal government reimbursed schools for the cost. Some districts saw as much as a 40% uptick in how many students ate at school. That expired this past summer, making this school year the first since 20202021 without it in place.
While full data for this year isn’t yet available, school nutrition advocates say they saw a corresponding decrease when families could no longer rely on the
program this year.
“It showed a lot of families needed it,” Ashley Wheeland, director of public policy for Hunger Free Colorado and advocate for the universal school meals proposition, said. “And then they had to go back to cutting corners or getting less nutritious food or kids getting food on their own.”
Edwards and others said they expect a majority of school districts will say yes to the optional program next school year. After all, school boards may find it hard to say no voter-approved program to feed all the kids in their district. But some districts have expressed concerns about having the capacity to meet an expected increase in demand. That includes having enough workers and physical equipment.
At Jefferson County Public Schools, where Edwards works as the director of operations for food and nutrition services, they’ve raised the starting wage for kitchen staff from $12 an hour to $17 an hour over the past three years in an effort to recruit and retain employees.
The Colorado Department of Education is already hosting training sessions for school districts to help them understand the new program and various state and federal regulations around school meals. The department isn’t advocating for or against their participation in the program, but trying to help them figure out if it’s the right call for their students and situation, Brehan Riley, the director of the office of school nutrition at the Colorado Department of Education, said.
“They want to make sure they’re staffed adequately, have the right kitchen equipment to meet the needs of the increased participation, and that they don’t run into supply chain issues so they can meet the need of the menus they put in place,” she said.
Before food can go into bellies, it needs to get to the schools. Proposition FF included specific provisions to help schools buy local. The Colorado Department of Education already works with Nourish Colorado to help connect schools with Colorado-grown, raised, and produced foods — albeit on a much smaller scale than what Proposition FF funds.
Jessica Wright, director of healthy food in institutions for Nourish, used the example of carrots for what they aim to do. Now, many school districts are incentivized through economies of scale and the realities of school kitchen production to just buy 50-pound bags of baby carrots instead of whole carrots that can be prepared in different ways and give children a sense of what food actually is.
Proposition FF gives a chance to fix that, she said, while also helping local ranchers, farmers and other food producers find a market for their goods. Ideally, it’ll give local food producers peace of mind that they’ll have consistent buyers through schools while giving students a connection to their food through seed-to-table type programs, she said. Hamburgers don’t come pre-formed, after all, and green chile sauce doesn’t grow in jars.
As for students getting inundated with whichever of Colorado’s local crops dominate the landscape near their home? Well, that’d be a good problem to have, she said.
“How amazing would that be for kids to be excited to get to school in August because they know they’re going to be getting so many peaches?” Wright said through a chuckle.