I have two children, age 9 and 5, in the Pueblo School District, and I’m worried I’m going to need to find more than $100 a month to pay for their school lunches.
That’s because their access to free meals through federal child-nutrition programs is under threat. When federal pandemic support expires at the end of June, most of the country’s schools no longer will feed all students free of charge. Meanwhile, school districts will receive less money from the federal government — about $2.91 per meal instead of $4.56 — for those they do feed.
If that happens, my children’s school will have to charge $2.50 per lunch per child, so that’s $5 a day we’ll need to find for our two kids, or $25 a week, or more than $100 a month. My husband works at the steel mill, and I work part time. It’s a lot of extra money on top of inflation cutting into everything.
Both my children are living with health issues, and the extra lunch cost is about the same as the co-pays on their medications. It’s not a choice any family should face. Families like mine are looking at going into lunch debt as we struggle to cover the costs of living. We need to focus on our other needs like housing, groceries, and paying our bills.
I hope Congress does the right thing and extends the waivers, but it’s not looking hopeful.
Our family doesn’t qualify for regular federal free-school-meals programs. That’s because, in Colorado, we’d need to earn less than $28,500 a year. It’s a threshold that was created long before record inflation set in. It doesn’t account for all Colorado children and families facing food insecurity.
The Colorado General Assembly has just passed a bill, called Healthy School Meals for All, that would cover the gap for families that don’t qualify for the federal school-meals program. It would reimburse participating schools for the costs of obtaining and preparing the food, which would be available to all students. They also would be eligible to receive grants to buy Colorado-grown and -raised foods.
How would the program be funded? By reducing the amount of Colorado income-tax deductions available to taxpayers earning more than $300,000 per year. That’s why the measure requires voter approval in November before it can take effect.
I’m thrilled the General Assembly managed to pass the legislation on a bipartisan basis. And I’m excited that voters get to decide on the measure, too.
When I’ve spoken with parents over the last few weeks, they’re very pleased about the possibility of the measure passing. It’s true that I’ve heard some people express concern about how we’ll be using tax to fund the measures, but they tend to change their mind when I say we’ll be asking only those Coloradans who earn more than $300,000 a year to contribute. I also say that our children’s health should be a priority for Colorado’s future.
Here’s why we should cover the costs of school lunch for all children. Right now, kids who do qualify for free school lunches would, once again, face stigma in the lunch line. Healthy School Meals for All will remove that stigma and make sure more students get the food they need. It also will mean more students do better in school. Schools could spend less money on meal administrative costs and spend more money on nutritional and kitchen staffing.
Groups like the National Farm to School Network have been campaigning to ensure that our school meals are aligned with values like economic justice and respecting workers and educators. The measures in Colorado will lead the way, nationally, on these issues, and inspire states across the country to follow suit. Schools will be able to provide healthy meals and do more scratch cooking.
They’ll also get money to train their canteen staff in how to do it, which is an important step. I like the idea of our schools working with local farmers to source local ingredients. It will help strengthen Colorado’s economy as well as student health.
I’m glad schools are shifting their thinking about the lunches we serve our children. There’s more parent and student input, and we’re raising our voices to say healthy, local food is important to us.
Assuring healthy meals for all schoolchildren will mean one less thing standing in the way of our children’s future, so all our children can succeed.
Tanna Schut, of Pueblo, is a parent in the Pueblo School District 60.
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