COLORADO SPRINGS — A federal program that helped expand access to school meals will expire this summer, but state legislators are making a last-minute push to fund the program.
House Bill 22-1414 would refer a ballot measure to Colorado voters, asking them to approve a cap on itemized and standard tax deductions for individuals earning over $300,000. The cap would be set at $12,000 for individuals and $16,000 for couples. e
Current law caps state income tax itemized deductions for taxpayers who have federal adjusted gross income of $400,000 or more at $30,000 for single filers and $60,000 for joint filers.
By eliminating certain tax deductions for high-income filers, the measure would raise roughly $100 million a year to reimburse districts for meals provided to students who weren’t federally eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, provide grants to help them buy locally produced food, increase pay for cafeteria staff, and more.
"Districts across Colorado have seen a 20 to 40 percent increase of students over the last year participating in school lunch. We know it is a direct result of the child nutrition waiver that allowed kids to eat whether they did or didn't have money," said Patience Kabwasa, Food to Power.
Kabwasa supports the bill that would continue the free school meal program. She says it's been vital for working and low-income families who've struggled to put food on the table during the pandemic.
"I really do think with gas prices going up, food prices, and inflation I think families are really feeling a crunch. To not have to worry about if their children are going to be able to eat, I think this waiver will continue support them and they'll be able to use that money for other things," said Kabwasa.
She believes school districts should provide meals as a service to all kids.
"You might already be labeled as the poor kid, and having to go in and have a special process for free and reduced lunch as opposed to other kids who go through the line or swipe a card. The ability to take away the stigma and give access to all kids, it is a no brainer," said Kabwasa. "I really think this is a good use of our tax dollars, out of all the things we do with our tax dollars."
"If you claim it is integral and necessary to properly educate kids then let's make it part of the education budget. Stop trying to farm it out, and make it something else," said Jeff Kemp, Colorado Springs parent.
Kemp is among people who don't support the funding mechanism for the free school meal program.
"I think it would be shot down if they gave it to us because they're talking about raising taxes. It is not going to be sequestered to just those people because those people own businesses and work just like the rest of us. It is going to find a way to trickle down," said Kemp.
Earlier in the legislation session, lawmakers had hoped to fund the program with Senate Bill 22-87. The measure would have made school meals free for at least one year, and utilize federal COVID-19 relief funds, but it stalled due to high cost.
"It was too much money to push through the state legislature, we simply didn't have it. I know everyone is like we have all of this ARPA funding but that is a temporary fix. We need a permanent solution, and that's why we're going to the voters," said Representative Dafna Michaelson Jenet, (D) Commerce City.
"We are strongly in support of this bill because it will help us to provide healthy and nutritious to all students in public schools across the state. It is so important for our kids to have the nutrition that they need to be able to learn, grow, thrive, and be happy healthy adults. Nutritious meals are so important, and we can with House Bill 1414 create a pathway to ensure all of our students have access to that food," said Marc Jacobson, Chief Financial Officer of Hunger Free Colorado.
According to data from Hunger Free Colorado, 40 percent of households with children struggled with food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It is so important that this allows all kids to have access to meals for free. We've found in the past that many students who are eligible for free and reduced priced meals were hesitant to take advantage of that because of the stigma and often the bullying that accompanies being the kid who qualifies for free meals. Kids didn't want to go to the lunch-line and deal with that. We've seen this past year with the federal waivers, we've seen so many more of those kids who weren't eligible but didn't participate because of that stigma and shame," said Jacobson.
The bill passed the Finance Committee 6-2 on Thursday.