Colorado Voters Approve Free School Meals for Public School Students

Colorado voters decisively approved a statewide ballot measure to provide free meals for all public school students.

Last week, Colorado voters approved a statewide ballot measure to create a program to provide free school meals for all public school students and to help schools pay for the meal program. The measure passed comfortably with 55 percent to 45 percent margin. The now-approved program will provide state funds for the free meals by raising $100 million a year by increasing taxes on the state’s richest residents:

The measure will help schools pay for the meals by raising $100 million a year by increasing taxes on the state’s richest residents. Those making more than $300,000 a year will see their state tax deductions limited, increasing their taxable income.

The Colorado measure will also fund pay increases for “frontline school cafeteria workers,” which NPR reports will “help deal with staff shortages and would incentivize schools to buy Colorado products.”

The same reported noted that:

There was no organized opposition to the measure. But critics said the program was unnecessary and too expensive. Some questioned whether free meals for all was needed, especially since low-income students will keep receiving free meals under current law.

School meals are a sticking, but tricky policy point

Universal free school meals are an ongoing policy debate at the national level and local levels. In June, Congress voted to pushback the expiration of a federal COVID program that provided free school meals to public school kids around the country — but that didn’t stick. Some advocates want to make that program permanent, however, as NPR reports, that is a hard sell in Washington D.C. Additionally, increased inflation and supply chain issues have compounded with the funding gap, leaving locals to start the 2022-23 school year concerned with how they might provide meals.

Currently, Massachusetts and California offer free school meals to all students, regardless of their family’s socioeconomic situation.

Delegate Kirill Reznik of Montgomery County introduced legislation during the 2022 session that would have done the same, with the State footing the total bill for free school meals. According to the bill’s fiscal note, doing so would have cost the State about $27.0 million in general funds for Fiscal Year 2024, increasing to $51.3 million by Fiscal Year 2027. That bill did not receive a committee vote.

The COVID-19 pandemic and global economic uncertainty also continue to impact food supply chains and goods, and school districts around the country are finding themselves in a pickle to provide school meals.

In fact, 97% of 1,368 recently surveyed school meal program directors said they were worried about pandemic supply chain disruptions and their ability to provide nutritious meals to students.

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