Colorado on track to roll out voter-approved school meal program
(Colorado News Connection) Colorado is one step closer to ensuring all kids can access healthy food at school regardless of their ability to pay, after Gov. Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 221 into law.
The measure creates an account for funds collected for the program, which was approved by voters in 2022, and includes revenues from ending state tax deductions for people earning $300,000 a year or more.
Nicholas Marquez, community organizer for Hunger Free Colorado, said the move is an important step for rolling out the new program in the fall.
"Healthy School Meals for All is very important, to not only the kids we're going to be able to feed, which is 60,000 or more with this program, at no cost to the families," Marquez explained. "It's also important for our local farms and ranchers that could explore a new market."
A similar free meals program installed during the pandemic saw a significant increase in the total number of students participating in school meal programs. The federally-funded program expired in September. Until the program's official rollout, families must apply for free or reduced price school meals and meet certain income requirements.
So far, 90 school districts have opted into Healthy School Meals for All, but some remain on the fence, largely due to bureaucratic hurdles to access federal dollars. Marquez noted many nonprofits are working with the Colorado Department of Education to help districts overcome those barriers.
"When it's fully implemented, the hope is that we can minimize the need for applications for free or reduced lunch," Marquez emphasized. "That has caused some confusion with some school districts."
The second year of the program will give school districts that have created a local food advisory council funding to purchase food directly from local farmers and ranchers, and Marquez is reaching out to communities across the state to help get the process underway.
"The local food purchasing piece of this program will really help stimulate rural economies," Marquez stressed. "It will help grow small and mid-sized food producers. It is also a way for us to ensure that foods in school remain minimally processed and also healthy."