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Children’s advocates urge lawmakers to extend school meals for all

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Eric Galatas

(Colorado News Connection) Federal COVID relief funds that helped expand access to school meals for all kids regardless of their ability to pay are set to expire in June, and children's advocates are urging Colorado lawmakers to make that investment permanent. 

Ashley Wheeland - director of public policy at Hunger Free Colorado - said in addition to reducing child hunger and food insecurity, a new bill making its way through the Legislature will give food producers across the state access to a reliable customer base, and fair prices for their goods.

"It has some funding for school districts to purchase healthy, local food from our Colorado ranchers and Colorado farmers," said Wheeland. "And make sure that we're investing back into our state as we're investing in food for children."

Some critics of Senate Bill 87 argue that free meals could create government dependency, with others concerned about costs. 

Wheeland noted the projected cost would be less than one third of 1% of the state's budget. She added when kids can access healthy, nutritious food, they do better in school, and are less likely to need assistance as adults because they are better equipped to get jobs that pay a living wage.

Many Colorado school districts that made meals available to all students last year saw upwards of 20% more kids getting meals. Proponents say removing application requirements and cash registers from cafeterias gives educators more time to focus on learning. 

Wheeland said the program can also put an end to lunch-line shaming that low-income kids experience.

"They feel shamed and stigmatized when they have to get in the lunch line and show a card," said Wheeland. "We've had families who testified at the committee that their child came home with a number written on their arm of what the family owed the school for school meals."

She said the program should help families struggling with Colorado's rising cost of living by ending school lunch debt. 

The measure also aims to address workforce shortages by increasing pay for staff that prepare and serve meals, and offers resources to move away from pre-packaged and processed foods. 

SB 87 cleared the Senate's Education Committee with bipartisan support, and is now under review by Appropriations.