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Cañon City students pick up meals during summer 2019 from a bus that Cañon City School District sent to neighborhood sites to help families facing food insecurity. The district expanded the use of the bus during the pandemic as hunger rose in the community. The bus continues to make stops throughout the community on Fridays so that parents or students can grab meals to last them through the weekend. (Handout)

When Paula Buser heard that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would fund universal free lunch for schools throughout the country next year, she hit a crossroads of emotions, falling somewhere between contented and concerned.

Food insecurity has plagued families in Fremont County during the pandemic, said Buser, who directs support services for Cañon City School District. She helped devise a plan to feed hungry families, dispatching a little white bus stocked with meals to directly reach families in need.

“This pandemic has created a lot of loss for a lot of people,” Buser said. 

But she also knows how much her district, where 57% of students rely on free and reduced-price lunch, a federal metric of poverty, needs state funding attached to at-risk students.

Colorado’s school finance formula includes an at-risk factor that affects districts’ funding based on the number of students they educate who qualify for free lunch. With free school meals open to any student regardless of income, families may have less incentive to fill out applications for free and reduced-price lunch. And that could lead to a district like Cañon City undercounting low-income families.

“Now what’s the rest of the plan to make sure these districts can recoup this funding loss caused by this decision to put in the waivers?” Buser asked. The number of applications for free and reduced-price lunch submitted to the district for the 2020-21 school year was down 34%, compared with the year before.

That kind of drop was felt across the state. Legislative budget forecasters projected that the pandemic-fueled recession would increase Colorado’s at-risk student count by 50,000. The actual total: about 3,000 students fewer than the 2019-20 count.   

A Centennial Elementary School fifth grader drinks water from a carton during lunch in the school cafeteria on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado lawmakers intervened when schools that undercounted students missed out on funding. State Senate Bill 53 created a $19.9 million fund for schools with at-risk students whose families might not have applied for free and reduced lunch. It’s unclear whether state lawmakers will pursue this solution again if families of at-risk students are undercounted again.

“No district ended up with a decrease in their funding that was more than 2% what was projected,” said Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer at CDE.

The USDA is issuing waivers to districts like Cañon City through the Seamless Summer Option. The program provides federal funds to schools for free student meals. The Colorado Department of Education’s school nutrition unit will be distributing somewhere between $4.25 and $4.32 for every lunch and $2.42 to $2.46 for every breakfast served on a monthly basis by schools under the program. 

Okes said the unit is supporting implementation at the local level, providing training services and technical assistance. It’s also encouraging school districts to tout a new round of food assistance through the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program to motivate families to apply for free and reduced-price lunch.

Leslie Colwell, vice president of K-12 education initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, worries about a second year of a significant undercount.

“The waiver is great news for kids and families who may be experiencing food insecurity, but it may eliminate the need for families to submit (free and reduced-price lunch) applications, which will likely result in another year of undercounting our at-risk students,” she said.

This year’s undercount was primarily driven by lower collections of free and reduced-price lunch forms among eligible families — paper forms that must be submitted in person, Colwell said.

Along with facing serious state funding repercussions, schools and districts eager for families to complete forms must scramble to chase those families down, she said. The pursuit was made more complicated by many students remaining in remote classes during the fall.

“A two-edged sword”

Buser’s concerns about the effects of the USDA’s extension of state funding are tempered by the rising level of food insecurity in her community. The number of meals served jumped about 37% during the pandemic. Cañon City schools sprang into action as soon as the USDA issued waivers to make food service more flexible at the start of the pandemic.

The district recognized that it needed to deliver food to its families rather than expect them to come to school to pick up food when students were learning remotely.

Cañon City School District deployed its mobile unit when students transitioned to remote classes, sending a 15-passenger bus to a few neighborhood sites from March 2020 through the start of the school year. The district has used the bus to connect families with meals since 2018 and expanded the service during the pandemic. The district, which has about 3,500 students and alternates between four-day weeks and early release on Fridays, also created a central site at its high school, where families could pick up grab-and-go meals, including some hot meals.

Additionally, the district distributed what it dubbed “the triple play bag” to students for three-day weekends — an effort it has continued, Buser said. On Fridays when school is not in session, the mobile unit stops at a few points throughout the community so families can grab meals to get them through the weekend. On Fridays when classes are running, the mobile unit parks at a central location in Cañon City so parents or students can pick up meals for the two-day weekend.

Without the USDA extending universal free lunch for students through the next school year, Buser says more students would likely go hungry. Some families just barely miss qualifications for free and reduced-price lunch. Some have missed it by $2, Buser said.

“Just because they don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals doesn’t mean they can afford to put food on the table,” Buser said.

She’s pulled between the need for families to have access to food and for school districts to be able to preserve their financial security.

Patrick Sandos, superintendent of Sheridan School District No. 2, is torn in a similar way. He’s relieved that the USDA will continue to make universal free lunch accessible to all students, but he also knows it could carry some long-term financial consequences for the district.

“It’s a bit of a two-edged sword with that process,” said Sandos, whose district of nearly 1,250 students has a free and reduced-price lunch rate close to 83%.

It’s always a challenge collecting free and reduced-price lunch applications, with some families hesitant to share information about their income, Sandos said. The pandemic has escalated the challenge, with the Sheridan district losing track of some students since March 2020.

During the pandemic, the district loaded food onto buses to transport into the community, stopping at sites where families could retrieve meals. The district also created a lunch pick-up site at Sheridan High School. Sandos said the district was feeding a lot of kids, but not as many as it would have had the district run in-person classes the whole school year. 

A Centennial Elementary School staff member wheels lunches through the cafeteria on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, at the Harrison School District 2 school in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The district returned to in-person learning earlier this month and since January has consistently increased the number of breakfasts and lunches served. In January, Sheridan School District served close to 4,900 breakfasts and more than 5,500 lunches, Sandos said. By March, those numbers had jumped to more than 6,900 breakfasts and more than 8,000 lunches as students returned to in-person learning, he said.

Both Sheridan School District and Cañon City School District plan to push families to still fill out applications for free and reduced-price lunch for the 2021-22 school year. 

In Cañon City, Buser is helping devise a campaign to educate the community about the importance of free and reduced-price lunch applications and the impacts application numbers have on the district beyond providing meals to students. Sandos said his district will do everything it can through its registration process to encourage families to complete applications. 

Collecting as many applications as possible, he said, is his district’s “high hope.”

Email: Twitter: @zachbright_

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...