Colorado voters will be asked to approve meals for all students in November

The measure would provide consistent funding to replace a similar federal program, which existed during the pandemic

A new program, proposed to voters via ballot, would support free meals for all public school students in Colorado as well as funding for increasing the salaries of nutrition services workers and more.
Eagle County School District/Courtesy Photo

This November, Colorado voters will see a ballot measure to approve a high-income tax, which would create a consistent funding source for free meals for all students in the state’s public schools.

Dubbed Healthy School Meals for All, the Colorado ballot measure aims to create a permanent funding source to replace the federal pandemic relief program, which funded free lunches for students regardless of their free and reduced status for the past two years.

“Colorado has over 140,000 children facing hunger — that’s one in nine Colorado children facing hunger. No kid should go hungry because they can’t afford a healthy meal,” said Tomas German-Palacios, special projects coordinator for Good Food Collective and a campaign manager for Healthy School Meals for All in Durango, at a Western Slope campaign launch for the ballot measure on Thursday, Aug. 18.

“The fact of the matter is the pandemic and other world events have left families significantly more economically vulnerable. Passing Healthy School Meals for All is an enormous step to solve this issue,” he added.

At the Western Slope launch, Dan Sharp, the director of food and nutrition for the Mesa County School District, said that the past two years served as a trial period for what free meals can provide to students, families and school communities.

Support Local Journalism

“We’ve already seen the effect and all the positive impacts of healthy school meals during COVID,” Sharp said. “COVID has provided us a glimpse of what healthy school meals can be: School cafeterias free of stigma, students receiving local and statewide sourced foods, higher levels of learning and decreased hunger. All kids need healthy food to learn.”

This impact was also seen at schools across the local Eagle County School District. Chris Delsordo, director of nutrition services at Eagle County Schools, said that during this period, the district saw an increase in participation for meals of 30% or more.

“I — and a million other directors in the country — all think that food should be free for all students,” Delsordo said. “They eat more, there are no stigmas behind it because everybody is the same. Even though no one knows who’s free, who is reduced; these kids still think that way.”

This increase was similar to other districts in the state. The participation spike that Sharp reported in Mesa County’s schools proves that there are many more kids who need meals that weren’t getting them in the pre-pandemic (and now current) model of free and reduced lunch.

“Prior to COVID, many students that were eligible for the free meals did not participate and went hungry to make sure that they were not recognized by classmates as the ‘poor kid,’” Sharp said. “During the period of COVID, what we got to see was that stigma go away; no longer did they have to worry about being seen as the ‘free kid…’ I believe that the fact that we went up 4,000 students a day really reflects the amount of families that do need assistance.”

The primary motivation and rationale behind the ballot measure are to ensure this access to nutritious meals continues for all students.

“Kids are so much more focused when they have a good meal in school if they’re not thinking that they’re hungry all the time, they definitely do better academically, it’s proven,” Delsordo said.

While there are some other additional components, at its basic level the program will do the following four things:

  • Reimburse school districts for offering free breakfasts and lunches to students
  • Provide grants and resources to help districts purchase food from Colorado and local farmers and ranchers
  • Provide grants and funds to increase the salary of, or provide stipends for, nutrition service employees
  • Provide grants for technical assistance and supplies at schools

This ballot measure was referred to the ballot earlier this year by state legislators. The measure would provide a permanent funding stream for the program by limiting state income tax deductions for households with more than $300,000 a year in adjusted gross income. It’s estimated that the program will cost a minimum of $50 million.

According to the bill language, “current law limits state income tax itemized deductions for taxpayers who have federal adjusted gross income of $400,000 or more to $30,000 for single filers and $60,000 for joint filers.”

If passed, this would add a limit to both itemized and standard income tax deductions for taxpayers who have a federal adjusted gross income of $300,000 or more and lowers the limit to $12,000 for single filers and $16,000 for joint filers.

For the local district, this ballot measure could have numerous benefits.

“Now that the kids aren’t eating free, our participation is dropping,” Delsordo said, adding that this directly impacts the department’s finances. On the financial impact alone, he said that with higher participation, the district gets “more reimbursement and more students eat, which means we’re utilizing the food that we purchased.”

This year, during its 2022-23 budget approval process, the Eagle County School district anticipated impacts on its nutrition services fund as a result of the universal free program ending. Sandra Farrell, the district’s chief operating officer, reported that without the federal pandemic program, district officials were anticipating a revenue reduction (based on this decrease in participation) coupled with rising supply chain costs and anticipated salary increases for food service employees to impact the overall fund balance.

Plus, the measure would help with the workforce challenges facing the department.

“It would always be great to be able to raise your department’s wages because we’re competing against everyone else in the valley. We struggle because they could go out there, get more money, and get more hours. Delsordo said. “It would help.”

However, overall the primary motivation, Delsordo said, is providing all Eagle County students with access to free meals.

“I just hope, hope, hope that the state does something because other states have approved free meals for all this year,” Delsordo said. “Hopefully Colorado does something so that we can get rid of worrying about kids — if they’re free, if they’re reduced, if they’re full pay — they can just eat if they want to eat.”

Support Local Journalism