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Free school meal expansion during pandemic spotlights ongoing need

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Eric Galatas

(Colorado News Connection) School districts across Colorado had to get creative to ensure families could access critical meals during pandemic-related closures.

With kids back in cafeterias, nutrition directors are calling for continued universal access to breakfast and lunch, regardless of a family's ability to pay.

Shannon Solomon, assistant director of operations for Aurora Public Schools Nutrition Services, said when school cafeterias closed, she's proud of how her team found ways to meet customers where they were.

"I joked with my team regularly that we were Dr. Seuss. 'We will feed our kids in a park, we will feed them on a bus,'" Solomon recounted. "We pivoted, and for our customers that could not get to us, we got to them."

Current Child Nutrition Reauthorization proposals, part of President Joe Biden's American Families Plan, would ensure all students can access nutritious meals at school, after school, during the summer and at child care for free.

Proponents argued the programs will reduce childhood hunger and obesity, and support academic achievement.

Katie Cossette, director of nutrition services for Englewood Schools, said universal access helps remove the stigma of so-called "poor kids meals." It also eliminates the administrative burden of signing kids up for reimbursements and collecting unpaid meal debt.

Cossette pointed out the program has put a spotlight on a need which continues to exist today.

"I will say we are serving more meals than I've ever seen our district serve, and they keep going up every day, which is incredible," Cossette explained. "And it really shows how valuable our program is to the community. When it's free, our families use it."

Solomon added universal access to meals ultimately helps students stay focused in the classroom, and gives them the chance to be the best version of themselves they can be.

"Nourishment is Maslow's ‘Hierarchy of Needs,’ it's one of the basic fundamentals of a human being," Solomon remarked. "Having school lunch and school breakfast be universally free to every single human-being-student there should be a part of the school day."