States

Colorado Voters Say Yes to Universal Free School Meals. Will Other States Follow?

By Arianna Prothero — November 09, 2022 2 min read
Image of students in line for a school meal.
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A program that would make school meals permanently free for all students in Colorado is on the brink of becoming a reality.

Colorado voters have come down strongly in favor of a ballot initiative to provide school meals to all students regardless of income. That’s according to unofficial election results from the state that show 55 percent of voters cast their ballots in favor of universal school meals.

This may be the start of a bigger trend as states look to fill in the void left by the federal government when it let COVID-era funding for universal free school meals expire this summer.

“We have seen a number of states recognizing the value of offering free meals to all,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, which represents food service directors across the country. “With inflation and prices rising at the grocery store and at the gas pump, families have really come to depend on that benefit.”

Now that federal funding for universal school meals has ended, many schools are struggling with mounting student lunch debt, said Pratt-Heavner.

“We have so many families who don’t understand the application process or, because of the rapid rise of inflation, aren’t eligible for free meals but are still struggling to feed their families,” she said. “We have heard from many members who have seen meal debt increase, and that will impact education budgets.”

Some districts are reporting levels of meal debt in just the first few months of this school year that have exceeded what typically accrues throughout the entirety of a normal school year.

Colorado to become third state to offer free meals

Colorado will soon join California and Maine as the three states with permanent programs offering all students free school meals.

Massachusetts, Nevada, and Vermont have committed to keeping universal free meals in place through this school year. Connecticut was offering free meals to all students, but that program is running out of funding, said Pratt-Heavner.

Several other states have pending legislation to enact similar programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Some polling has found that the policy is popular nationally: Nearly 70 percent of adults said in a December 2021 poll from the Urban Institute that they support making free school meals for all students permanent.

The Colorado program will be paid for by limiting state income tax deductions for households with annual incomes of more than $300,000.

The Colorado free meals program, called Healthy School Meals for All, will also raise pay for cafeteria workers and provide grants to districts to buy more local ingredients for school meals.

School districts in Colorado with a high enough proportion of low-income families to qualify for federal Community Eligibility Provision program aid will be required to apply for those federal dollars to help pay for student meals. Districts will use Medicaid and other data to figure out student eligibility for the federal aid in order to reduce the paperwork required for families, according to Chalkbeat Colorado.

While some votes in Colorado are still being tabulated, all counties have submitted their election results to the state.

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