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Free school lunches could end with federal funding expiring, but Colorado may pick up the tab

Pandemic program left out of government spending bill
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Posted at 8:40 AM, Mar 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-10 10:43:28-05

DENVER — For nearly two years, children have been able to eat for free at school thanks to federal waivers because of the pandemic. But that funding is now set to expire June 30, after being left out of a house spending bill.

Beth Wallace, the executive director for food and nutrition for Jeffco Public Schools, also serves as president of the School Nutrition Association. She has been pushing the federal government for one more year of waivers.

“With our supply chain challenges that we’re facing, with the staffing challenges, we really need one more year of these waivers where everyone gets to eat at no cost,” Wallace said.

Wallace said her district has seen a 30% increase in school lunch participation since meals became free. She said providing free lunches for all students reduces stigma around those who qualify for free or reduced lunch and ensures all kids eat a solid meal.

“We have federal standards, and we know they’re getting a good start to their day,” she said.

IN-DEPTH: Should school meals stay free for all kids permanently?

Democratic Colorado lawmakers are working to continue providing free meals to all students. SB22-087 would reimburse schools for meals for kids who don’t meet the income qualifications for free or reduced lunch. In Jeffco Public Schools, only about 28% of kids meet the criteria.

State Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, who co-sponsored the bill, said the sticking point for lawmakers is the cost of up to $118 million a year. She and other sponsors plan to introduce amendments to bring the cost down.

“There’s a whole gap of kids that are losing out on the opportunity to take advantage of free and reduced meals because they don't meet that income criteria, yet their family is still struggling,” Fields said.

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If the bill passes, it would take effect starting in the 2023-2024 school year, assuming the state is selected for a pilot federal program to use Medicaid eligibility to identify students eligible for free school meals.