Frequently Asked Questions
Doesn’t the Federal Government already pay for school meals? Why is a state level program necessary?
No. There has been some federal funding in the past, but it was temporary and has expired.
Before the COVID pandemic, schools had to follow strict requirements to receive any federal reimbursement for their meal programs. Only children from some low-income families were eligible for free and reduced-price meals, and their parents had to apply for the program and receive approval in order for their kids to recieve school meal benefits.
COVID-19 waivers temporarily changed this. Beginning in 2020, Congress increased the meal reimbursement rates provided to school districts and made every child automatically eligible for free meals, removing the burden of the application process from families seeking school meals for their kids. These waivers have since expired, impacting school breakfast and lunches and summer meal programs.
Congress passed a limited bill called the Keep Kids Fed Act in June 2022, but failed to extend the waivers that helped schools provide universal school meals during the pandemic. This is forcing Colorado schools to make difficult cuts to the free and reduced-price meal programs for the 2022/2023 school year, and will leave tens of thousands of kids hungry unless we act.
We need to pass the Healthy School Meals for All ballot initiative to ensure long-term, sustainable funding to provide free school meals for every Colorado student.
How do Healthy School Meals for All improve equity?
Healthy school meals for all makes sure that no children – particularly our most vulnerable children and children who are on the line of eligibility in application-based programs – fall through the cracks. Given the current unstable economy, the eligibility status of families may fluctuate and we don’t want any child to go without food because of paperwork - or for any reason. Healthy school meals for all also decreases lunch shaming and stigma in the cafeteria. This helps to keep kids fed in our state even as many families and communities continue to struggle.
We know that school meals are a critical source of nutrition for many children, helping them learn and be active in the short term, and thrive academically, physically, and emotionally in the long term. School meals also establish lifelong healthy eating habits that can reduce the cases and severity of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, along with the costs associated with these diseases.
Doesn’t Healthy School Meals for All mean we are paying for lunches for kids from wealthy families? I don’t think my school needs this.
The very real fact is that there are families living with food insecurity in every single community in Colorado. Whether it is a long-term condition or an acute need during a crisis that a family has never experienced before, school meals are a critical resource to a family that is struggling to put food on the table. We don’t require some students to pay for their education at public schools, or books, or visits to the school nurse based on their family’s income – all things, like food, that are critical to education. Why should school meals be any different? Furthermore, over 1 in 4 food insecure children live in households that do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The high cost of living in Colorado leaves many families in a precarious state: they earn too much to receive federal assistance from programs such as SNAP, but too little to eat full and healthy diets. Healthy school meals for all would ensure that at least school-aged children can rely on school meals.
Why not just expand the number of families who are eligible for the free and reduced school meal programs?
Since the beginning of federal school lunch and breakfast programs, schools have been tasked with feeding as many children that are in need as possible while doing so with limited resources. For this reason, federally-reimbursed meals divide children into tiers--some kids pay full price, some kids pay reduced, and some kids receive free meals. But the requirements are often out of touch with the economic realities of our communities; the process is onerous for families and the schools, and too many kids are left without the nutrition they need. We choose to imagine a better system without paperwork to demonstrate income, without meal debt and without stigma. We can instead focus on feeding kids quality school meals. Healthy school meals for all is a necessary step toward ending hunger in our state.
If my public school participates in CEP, why would we need a Healthy School Meals for All program?
The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a meal service option that allows schools and school districts in low-income areas to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to enrolled students, without collecting household income applications. It is not available to all districts even though we know there are kids and families facing food insecurity in every single community in our state.
Healthy School Meals for All would guarantee that participating school districts are able to provide universal school meals even if their demographics change. CEP requires a school or group of schools to meet a certain threshold of need before being eligible to participate. It means there is no guaranteed funding to keep kids fed from year to year.
Reimbursement for CEP also varies based on the demonstrated level of need in the community. In some communities, schools are only being reimbursed at the free rate for 65-70% of the meals served. All additional meals are reimbursed at the much lower paid rate. Healthy School Meals for All would reimburse schools 100% for the meals served, allowing schools to focus on maintaining or improving meal quality instead of keeping costs low and most of all making sure any kid who needs a meal can get one.
Don’t voters oppose tax increases? Won’t this just hurt people who are already struggling?
This is not a tax increase. This measure would limit the state income tax deductions a person can take only if they make $300,000 or more, which includes only the top 3% of Colorado taxpayers. The median income in Colorado in 2020 was $75,231. This would impact high earners when it comes to how much they can deduct from their taxes. This is a sensible way to provide sustainable funding to keep kids in our state fed.
How would Healthy School Meals for All improve student nutrition?
New nutrition standards were phased in starting in 2012 to increase whole grains, fruits, and vegetables served through the National School Lunch Program. Reimbursable meals must meet federal nutrition standards, which means lunches must provide one-third or more of the recommended levels for key nutrients. Reimbursable meals must also provide no more than 30 percent of calories from fat and less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat.
Participation in federally-funded child care nutrition or school meals is also associated with a significantly lower body mass index (BMI) among young, low-income children. These findings lead researchers to conclude that “subsidized meals at school or day care are beneficial for children’s weight status, and we argue that expanding access to subsidized meals may be the most effective tool to use in combating obesity in poor children.” Healthy food is expensive. Making sure that regardless of income kids have access to healthy school meals while in school makes a big difference to student health - and to the financial stability of families.
Of course, we want to feed kids, but school cafeterias are facing staffing shortages and current staff is overworked already. How will schools possibly deal with the extra demand?
Don’t forget that many Colorado public schools were already using support from federal waivers to implement Healthy School Meals for All. The waivers have expired, but the need has not. In order to ensure we can help schools have not only the people power, but also the training and equipment to effectively implement this program, it includes grants for participating schools to raise wages for front-line workers preparing and serving food to remain competitive and fairly compensate the folks working hard to keep kids fed. There are also grants to purchase equipment and for staff training on food preparation and scratch cooking.