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A close up of a kids hand as they eat a school meal
A Centennial Elementary School fifth grader drinks water from a carton during a school lunch on Feb. 10, 2021, in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Colorado Election News and Results

Colorado public school students will have access to free school meals after voters approved Proposition FF on Tuesday, slashing tax breaks for households that earn more than $300,000 in federal adjusted gross income starting in tax year 2023 to help pay for a new school meals program.

The measure passed with more than 55% of voters approving it.

The success of the measure means that all kids in public schools, no matter their family’s income, will be able to eat free school breakfasts and lunches, reflecting the critical role schools play in helping students facing food insecurity. The state’s new school meals program — the Healthy School Meals for All program — will take the place of a federal initiative that provided free meals to all kids through the first two years of the pandemic.

“This is a win for our fight against childhood hunger,” said Ashley Wheeland, director of public policy for Hunger Free Colorado, a nonprofit that helps people struggling with hunger. “Many more children that need food will now have access to it with their learning, and this is something that we’ve needed for a long time.”

The demand for food assistance swelled during the pandemic, with 68,000 more Colorado kids participating in school lunch programs supported by federal funds, said Wheeland, whose organization has supported the ballot measure since it was first referred by Democrats in the Colorado legislature this year through the passage of House Bill 1414. This school year, with the federal initiative no longer in place, school meals are reaching fewer students, she said.

Proposition FF will limit the amount that households earning more than $300,000 can claim in state income tax deductions to cover many of the costs of the new school meals program. It will also require school meal providers to take advantage of federal reimbursements to help ease program costs for the state.

The restriction will impact a taxpayer’s standard deduction or itemized deductions, which include charitable contributions, state and local taxes and mortgage interest.

Taxpayers who make more than $300,000 will be able to deduct no more than $12,000 for single filers and no more than $16,000 for joint filers. Currently, taxpayers who earn more than $400,000 can claim a maximum of $60,000 in state income tax deductions for a joint filer and a maximum of $30,000 for a single filer, caps that were passed under House Bill 1311. Taxpayers whose income is between $300,000 and $400,000 are not limited in how much they can deduct from their state taxable income.

Proposition FF will increase income tax revenue in the state by an estimated $100.7 million during the first full year of the tax change, fiscal year 2023-24, which begins on July 1, 2023.

School meal providers will be reimbursed for providing meals to all kids, and any school meal provider can benefit, whether they serve one or more school districts or charter schools. Currently, 183 school meal providers serve kids throughout the state and cover the costs of providing free and reduced-price lunches with state and federal funds and by charging families whose income exceeds federal poverty levels. Students might qualify for free or reduced-price meals, depending on their household income, but Colorado students who are eligible for reduced-price meals get free meals instead because the state funds their portion of the meal cost.

Denver resident Noah Hayden, 25, voted in favor of Proposition FF so that all students have enough to eat while trying to learn.

Hayden, an unaffiliated voter, teaches social studies at a charter school in Broomfield, and while most of his students come from families who can afford meals, he knows not all kids have the same resources.

“I just think it’s better that every kid is always ensured a lunch throughout the day,” Hayden said after voting at ReelWorks Denver Tuesday evening.

Joey Chester, 30, an unaffiliated voter from Westminster, came to the polls Tuesday with at least one thing in mind: school lunches.

Chester, who grew up in Aurora, voted “yes” on Proposition FF. He said he sees hope in the proposition.

“When I grew up, my mom gave us 40 bucks a month for school lunches, and I got lazy and would just burn it out and then have to make my own lunch finally for the rest of the year. I knew kids that didn’t always get meals, and I know things have gotten worse,” Chester said.

He added: “I hope it’s going to pass and the people that it’s going to tax are not going to be whiny about it.”

 


 

Colorado Sun reporter Delaney Nelson contributed to this report.

Erica Breunlin

Email: erica@coloradosun.com Twitter: @EricaBreunlin