During most of the pandemic, in every public school cafeteria throughout the country, every kid could get a free lunch, not just those from the poorest homes. Everyone.
The program that fed 50.6 million U.S. students expired in September, but some states are figuring out ways to extend it. California and Maine have both passed legislation to fund universal free lunch.
In Colorado, a coalition of parents, teachers, and anti-hunger advocates are pushing to make permanent universal free school lunches, and lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled legislature put it on the ballot.
GlendaRika Garcia, a bilingual food assistance navigator for Hunger Free Colorado, strongly backs the idea.
“I think that the kids being able to eat for free at school is really important, for all families, all kids,” said Garcia, a widow and a single mom of four boys.
Two of them, Alonzo and Pedro, tossed a football around in front of their apartment building, as Garcia explained the Healthy School Meals for All proposal on the ballot.
“Kids can’t learn if they don’t have good nutrition,” said Garcia, whose job entails signing up people for benefits and making sure they’re eligible.
The measure, known as Proposition FF, would use state funds to offer free meals for all public school students. It would also fund pay increases for school cafeteria workers, helping schools deal with staff shortages, and would incentivize schools to buy Colorado-grown food. That has some families, workers, and farmers cheering.
But critics point to a steep price tag for a new government program, which raises $100 million annually from a tax on households that make $300,000 or more a year.
School-aged members of a family of four making less than about $51,000 a year are eligible for free lunch. But supporters of the measure say that right now more than 60,000 Colorado kids can’t afford school meals yet aren’t eligible.
Garcia sees the proposal as a game changer, an equalizer. Depending on her job, Garcia at times qualified for her sons to get free lunches and at times didn’t, a blow to her budget.
Another issue, Garcia said, is that some kids bully others for getting a free lunch. It happened to her as a child when she also qualified for free lunch, and it happened to one of her sons.
“They know that people can identify if they can’t afford it. It hurts my heart,” she said.
Her son Alonzo said that at his high school some kids avoid the lunchroom rather than admit they qualify for free lunch.
“I think that they get embarrassed because they can’t afford it,” he said.
Many Colorado districts reported a clear uptick during the pandemic of kids eating lunches provided for free at school.
“We were feeding kids that we have never fed before, and it was good to see them coming up, and not just buying junk food,” said Andrea Cisneros, the kitchen manager at West Woods Elementary School in Arvada.
Many students arrive at school without food, said Dan Sharp, the school nutrition director in Mesa County Valley School District 51 in Grand Junction.
The district saw a 40% year-over-year increase in meals served during the pandemic, said Sharp.
“I really believe there’s more households here and students that could qualify but don’t, due to the stigma that goes with applying for free and reduced meals,” he said.
Proponents said they did several food insecurity surveys throughout the pandemic and, according to a recent survey, 44% of respondents with kids at home reported struggling to have access to nutritious food.
Low-income students will keep receiving free meals through federal funding, whether the proposal passes or not. There’s no organized opposition to the measure, but it does have critics.
“Nobody wants to be evil enough to say it, but this is a really stupid idea,” said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank. “Most kids in Colorado do not need this. And in fact, those who do, already have this.”
The group’s voter’s guide recommends a no vote.
“This proposal is, ‘Hey, let’s get the rich guys to buy our kids’ lunch,’” he said. “This is another expansion of state bureaucracy that is just not necessary.”
The governor told Colorado Public Radio’s Colorado Matters he hasn’t made his mind up about how he’ll vote on it.
“I don’t have an objection to the funding mechanism, but at the same time I sort of ask myself, ‘If we had this, would it be better just to be able to pay teachers better, reduce class size?’” said Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat. “Or is the best use of it lunches for upper-middle-income families?”
He added that the measure “doesn’t affect the state finances one way or the other because it’s effectively revenue-neutral with the mechanism.”
His Republican opponent seemed to lean toward supporting Proposition FF in her interview on the show.
“I haven’t had a chance to look at it, but I do want to make sure that every child has access to healthy food and lunches, so I’m certainly open to it,” said Heidi Ganahl.
The Common Sense Institute, a nonpartisan free-market think tank, analyzed the measure and raised several concerns, with modeling that showed it could be underfunded or raise more money than is needed.
“There needs to be some good oversight on the program so that costs are managed well, and also that they don’t develop a huge surplus,” said Steven Byers, the group’s senior economist.
Despite concerns about cost, universal free school lunch appears popular throughout the nation.
California allocated $650 million from its state budget to fund and support its universal free school meals program for the 2022-23 school year. Maine’s program was estimated by lawmakers to cost around $34 million a year.
Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and North Carolina introduced bills similar to the one on the Colorado ballot, most of them during the current legislative session. All of them are still in committee and have yet to go up for a vote.
A report published in June 2022 by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank focused on social and economic research, found that 76% of adults living with children enrolled in public school and 67% of adults not living with children enrolled in public school supported permanent free school meals.
This story is part of a partnership that includes Colorado Public Radio, NPR, and KHN.