COLORADO SPRINGS — Ballots will be mailed out on Monday to Colorado voters. One of the measures voters will consider is whether the state should provide healthy school lunches to all students for free.
The Healthy School Meals for All measure will be funded by limiting state income tax deductions for the top three percent of Colorado income earners, which are people who make over $300,000 dollars a year. Proponents of the measure say the goal is to make sure every kid in the state has at least one healthy meal to eat every day.
The measure would provide funding for schools to use healthy ingredients instead of processed foods, give schools funding to purchase equipment, and incentivize to buy locally-produced ingredients from Colorado farmers and ranchers to use in schools.
Natalia Avila is a local parent who grew up buying reduced lunches.
“There was a lot of like shame around it or I guess, stereotypical things, and i now have a daughter and she is also on reduced lunch when we can qualify for it,” said Avila.
Avila said many days after school she wouldn't eat.
“I just didn't want to worry my parents, so I would just go straight to bed and not eat because I just was like, well I’m another mouth to feed,” said Avila.
She supports Proposition FF which would provide free healthy school lunches to all students, no matter what their family’s household income is. Currently, to qualify for free school meals in Colorado, a family of four must earn less than $36,075 per year. To qualify for reduced school meals, that same household can make no more than $51,338 per year.
Proponents for the measure say passing of the proposition, will reduce or eliminate barriers when it comes to accessing healthy and nutritious food.
“There is not going to be barriers for them accessing breakfast or lunch. They're not going to be stigmatized by having to negotiate in the lunch line with the lunch lady or being in a separate line because they're on free and reduced lunch,” said Patience Kabwasa, the executive director of Food to Power.
Food to Power is a local non-profit providing healthy food to families. The nonprofit is one of dozens state-wide also in support of the measure. They say more than 60,000 kids in Colorado can't afford school meals, but don't qualify for free or reduced priced lunches, and two of every five families struggle to put food on the table. They also say there was a 20% to 40% increase in the number of children utilizing free school meals when the state had federal funding to provide school meals for all. Plus, more than 40% of Colorado families struggle to put healthy food on the table for their children.
“We’re seeing more people in our pantry. We know that families are having a harder time accessing food, particularly fresh food,” said Kabwasa. “We wouldn't send a child to school without a pencil and say, ‘do your best to figure it out.’ So expecting a child to go through the course of their school day to eat or be without food and be successful, I think is is unreasonable.”
Ellise Rafferty is a local high school student, and she is also in favor of the measure. She said food insecurity is something many children she knows has faced. She has volunteered at food equity organizations since she was 13 years old.
“I know a lot of people which is actually heartbreaking, who purposefully don't get lunch because they don't want their parents to pay for something they can't afford,” said Rafferty. “Food insecurity is a thing that too many children in America face, and I'm also a military child. So I've grown up and seeing that this is not an issue that is only in our community.”
For students like Rafferty, and parents like Avila, they know hunger is a barrier to learning. They say if the measure passes, there wouldn't be a barrier anymore.
“My kid is going to school hungry, and then what if she can't concentrate in school? That could be your kid,” said Avila. “I don't want her to go through what I went through as a child not having food.”
Those opposing the measure say the public shouldn't carry the cost of free meals for all students. Colorado State Representative, Andres Pico, was one of 22 representatives that voted no on the referendum. He said tax payers should not have to spend money on things that parents are responsible for doing.
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