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With the end of federal free meal program, districts encourage families to sign up for free and reduced meals

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Posted at 5:56 PM, Aug 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-02 16:37:27-04

COLORADO SPRINGS — For the first time in two years, Colorado students will be headed back to school without the universal free meal program.

Federal waivers allowed school districts to provide free breakfast and lunch to all public school kids regardless of their household income. Those waivers expired this summer and the National School Lunch Program reverts to its pre-pandemic state.

"I didn't mind it helping families. If we can have something where they don't have to worry about paying for food, that supplements other things like gas, school supplies, and uniforms," said Jennifer Smith, Colorado Springs mother.

Smith is among the parents who supported the free meal program.

"I didn't have to worry about sending lunch money. I always forgot the lunch money, I always tried to pay in advance because I would forget. If we can have it where I don't have to worry about it anymore, it helps in a long way," said Smith.

Working as a school outreach counselor, Smith remembers how it was for students before the waivers.

"Some of the kids don't understand why they're free, and their friends are not. Some of their friends forget their money and they're trying to figure out how to get the money. The lunch lady is trying to figure out how she can pay, or I can go into my family outreach budget to pay. It just gets a little sticky when everyone can go through the line and eat which is super easy," said Smith.

Not all parents think it is the best way to help kids.

"For example, we have Tri-Lakes Cares in Monument. I know people throughout our community and single mothers who are in the 80K-90K income range that are getting packages every week of food and snacks for their kids. They are making ends meet with more of these private entities, and the dollars going more directly to the people who need them," Darcy Schoening, Monument mother and Monument Trustee.

Legislators voted to put a question on the ballot in November that asks votes to make free school meals permanent. The measure would ask voters 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. 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.

"During COVID-19 and with so many people being laid off, losing their jobs, businesses being closed down, I think there was potential a place for a government program for free lunches for kids throughout Colorado. That said I believe there was Senate Bill 87 where the measure failed to make it out of committee to force the issue on residents. Now I sort of see the ballot measure as a way of not only a way of re-distributing wealth but potentially creating more government dependency which is not what we need after COVID-19," said Schoening. "The more and more grants that we create, the more and more government programs we create, I think that we're going to see a situation where people are relying on the government for things they previously didn't. I would like to see more accountability and individualism across the state, I don't necessarily believe that creating another program that takes money out of one person's pocket to put it in another is the end solution."

She believes the measure devalues high earners, individualism, business ownership, and entrepreneurship, and places a higher value on people who are in need.

Bill sponsors say eliminating certain tax deductions for high-income filers 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.

"We explored multiple methods but when the report came back at how much it would cost — we decided to go through the people of Colorado. Other than trying to pull it from some other programs which will then cause other people to not have the services that they need. This way, we can go to the people of Colorado and ask their permission and support to go forward and feed our kids," said Representative Dafna Michaelson Jenet, (D) Commerce City.

"It is the right thing for the state of Colorado to feed our kids. I can't think of anything noble than feeding kids. No kid should go to school or be hungry in our state or nation. There is shaming that goes along when you can't have breakfast or lunch. What typically happens is sometimes if there is no money on the books or you don't qualify for this program then they stamp your hand or put a wrist band on you that says tell your mom and dad that you need to have money on your books to be able to have breakfast or lunch. What this will do — take the stigma and shame out," said Sen. Rhona Fields (D-Aurora).

During this "gap year," free and reduced lunches are still available for students, but their families will have to fill out an application for qualification to waive any fees. Districts say fewer families have filled out the application since the waivers began two years ago so it is critically important to act now.

"For the past two years, students could eat free at school without having to fill out that application. That is no longer the case — all families will have to complete the application for the free and reduced meals in order to qualify for those meals," said Samantha Briggs, Director of Communications, Widefield School District 3.

She says filling out those forms is very important to get access to free and reduced meals and waive any fees.

"It has been a convenience of not having to do it, and it is kinda retraining and reminding our families that it is back, but it is extremely important for those families that need assistance," said Briggs.

"I think people need to be wary of more government programs and more government intervention. Moving money around the state from one person to another. Voters need to ask themselves is this the best way to do it and how much of my dollar is going to my neighbor's kid in need," said Schoening.

Anyone interested in the free and reduced meal program, click the following links for each district.