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Should Colorado's highest earners fund free meals for all Colorado public school kids?

The Healthy School Meals For All campaign would make free meals permanent for all public school kids in Colorado by limiting state income tax deductions for the top 3% of Colorado income earners – people who make $300,000 per year or more.
Healthy School Meals for All
The Healthy School Meals For All campaign would make free meals permanent for all public school kids in Colorado by limiting state income tax deductions for the top 3% of Colorado income earners – people who make $300,000 per year or more.

For the past two years the federal government has funded universal free school meals at public schools nationwide.

As the pandemic devastated millions of families, the federal government stepped in and waived fees for the school lunch programs.

Ashley Wheeland, the director of Hunger-Free Colorado, says when schools started offering free meals to everyone, they realized just how many kids weren't being fed.

"We saw so many more students participate this last year, and I think food is as important as any other resource in school like books. We shouldn't be differentiating out, at six years old, about who should be able to get a free meal and who shouldn't," said Wheeland.

This school year, Colorado students are returning to a pre-pandemic lunch program, which means kids have to fill out paperwork proving their families make under the state's poverty threshold in order to qualify.

Wheeland says with inflation and cost of living, the threshold doesn't reflect need, and that $100 per kid extra a month for school lunches, for thousands of families, it's more than they can afford.

"It means, you know, paying the electric bill. It means paying for groceries at home. It means helping pay that rent or that mortgage. You know, it's so expensive. Housing in Colorado is soaring. The cost of it are soaring and then, you know, for a lot of those students, this is the only good meal they get a day," said Wheeland.

Zander Kaschube, a kitchen manager at Jefferson County Schools and president of the Food Service Association at Jeffco, says he thinks reverting to the income-qualified lunch system is a step backward.

"Cliques form, because some kids are bringing all their food from home, and some kids have to rely on the free food from school. There have been times in my school when certain groups or certain kids have been bullied," he said.

Kaschube said he has had to turn down kids who have wanted lunch but didn't have the money to pay for it.

"It's not a rarity," he said. "It's gut-wrenching. It's heartbreaking. It really is. Why can't we just give them food and it's, it's hard. It's a really hard line to try and tiptoe."

The Healthy School Meals For All campaign would make free meals permanent for all public school kids in Colorado by giving a sliver of wealthy Coloradan's, people making over $300,000 a year, a little less of a discount on their taxes.

For those people, rather than being allowed to write off $30,000 for things like charitable donations, the state would limit that deduction to $13,000.

The difference would fund meals for about 60,000 Colorado public school students. The cost to the wealthy Coloradans paying for it would be less than a day's work.

"For those who take standardized tax deductions, we think their tax liability is around $500 more," said Ashley Wheeland from Hunger-Free Colorado.

"You look at the data, those who itemize are those who are really, really wealthy," she said. "So we estimate folks impacted, it's about 3% of Coloradans would be impacted in their taxes. And that's state tax deductions. It doesn't change the federal tax deductions. Some states don't have any allowance of state tax deductions."

A measure to make school meals free for all public school students was introduced during the most recent legislative session, and it stalled in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

As with all public funding issues that involve taxes in the state of Colorado, it has to be put up for a public vote.

That's because of something called TABOR or the Taxpayer's Bill Of Rights.

TABOR, a law that passed in 1992, prevents any tax increases in Colorado without the consent of the majority of voters.

And Colorado has a history of aversion to tax hikes.

Michael Fields of Advanced Colorado Action, a conservative policy nonprofit, says while taxing people may sound like an easy solution, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

"Our organization Advanced Colorado Action is pushing for a tax cut against what they call the Affordable Housing Measure given that it's taking TABOR refunds. But, just throwing out some of these concerns about this specific, you know, meals ballot issue, too," said Fields.

Fields says one of his concerns is that a limit on tax deductions may really discourage charitable giving.

"I just haven't seen a study to say how much will this actually impact nonprofit charitable giving and is what they're doing more important than, you know, the half of the population that doesn't need these free lunches? Like, this is a huge step to say we need to make sure every single kid has free lunch even if they aren't in these gaps or low income. So, I think this isn't just that we're gonna tax wealthier people, it could impact how much giving happens because of those write-offs," said Fields.

But Elliott Goldbaum, the director of fiscal policy at the Colorado Fiscal Institute, says this is a weak argument.

"People don't solely give these charitable gifts for tax purposes. They give them for a variety of reasons. They give them because it's a cause they believe in. They give them because it's something that they feel like is the right thing to do with their money, and I think most people see through that. I think people see that rich people aren't gonna stop giving money to charity because now we can pay for school meals," said Goldbaum.

"I think that if people are interested in racial justice, in economic justice, then tax justice is really important, too. And we need to look at ways to make sure that we are correcting some of those historical injustices that have taken place and not continuing to have a regressive racist tax code that really makes it so that black and brown people are much more likely to pay higher tax rates than the rich."

Zander Kaschube, the food service worker at Jeffco Public Schools, says Healthy Meals For All is really about values more than money.

"When we switched to the free food, instead of asking them for money, I could ask them how their day went. And it's just a completely different attitude in a kitchen when you don't have to worry about money," he said.

"Cooking for kids, cooking for anybody says, I see you, and I care about you. And so, yeah, Healthy School Meals For All is really about supporting that success in everybody in our communities."

In the meantime, public school students whose families don't have incomes low enough to qualify for free and reduced lunch are back to paying for meals at school.

If Colorado voters approve the Healthy School Meals For All in November's election, the earliest it would take effect would be for the 2023-24 school year.

This story from KGNUwas shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, including Aspen Public Radio.

Alexis Kenyon is a news reporter at KGNU radio in Boulder.