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Colorado’s free school lunch program is a success, but it comes at a cost

Shelley Schlender
Colorado voters approved a measure to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students in the state, but it's lead to a budget shortfall.

The Healthy School Meals for All program provides free breakfast and lunch to all Colorado’s public school students across 178 school districts. Approved by voters in 2022 under the name Proposition FF, it’s currently feeding even more students than initially anticipated — which means it has been largely successful in terms of its reach, but there is a downside. It has created an unforeseen gap in funding.

Jackie Sedley spoke about the issue with Jenny Brundin, an education reporter with Colorado Public Radio.

Jackie Sedley: So how big of a gap in funding are we talking about here?

Jenny Brundin:   They discovered that the shortfall is about $24 million for this year and was up to $50 million for next year. But the Joint Budget Committee made some changes that we'll talk about. So pretty significant: $24 million.

Sedley: So is the reason for this $24 million shortfall just that more kids are taking advantage of the program than expected, or are there other explanations?

Brundin: There are two main reasons, and the main one you just said is that way more students than anticipated are eating the free meals. The state estimated there'd be a 25% increase. Instead, breakfast is up 35% and lunch is up 31%. And the largest increase is in this category of students who typically pay.

Now it is unclear as well if some of those students would qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. So if you live in poverty, the federal government will pay your bill. And these students right now, if the parents didn't fill out the form, then the state is paying for them. But that's sort of a technicality we don't know the answer (to). And then there's another reason for the shortfall and that's officials estimated the Consumer Price Index or the inflation rate would be about 3.5%. We know that it's much higher than that. In fact, it's around 7.5%. So it's costing the state more to reimburse schools.

Sedley: So how is this program funded?

Brundin: When voters agreed to this, they passed it a couple of years ago with about 55% of voters saying yes. They agreed to reduce tax deductions for households earning over $300,000 a year. And that revenue pays for all the meals that are not covered by the federal government. And that was supposed to bring in about $100 million. It looks like it's on track, but the costs are coming in at about $150 million.

Sedley: And how many students are estimated to be participating in this program right now?

Brundin: That's a bit tricky. We know that schools are serving 184,000 breakfasts each day and lunch: 435,000. So I would say with lunches that's about half the number of schoolchildren in Colorado. So the numbers are way up. Every district is kind of different, but it serves a huge number of children.

Sedley: Looking quickly a bit deeper into Proposition FF. Weren't there supposed to be other elements in addition to just the free school meals?

Brundin: Those are pretty important to a lot of people. There were two other elements that voters approved aside from the free meal. One would give grants to schools to purchase produce from local farmers, and the other would raise cafeteria workers' wages to help with the shortage of workers. As you know, there's a huge, chronic shortage of all kinds of people that work in schools. Those were supposed to go into effect next year but the Joint Budget Committee voted to delay those provisions.

Sedley: Say more about that.

Brundin: So the cafeteria workers’ wage: they made a more significant change. They said that it would only go into effect subject to available resources. And we know in Colorado, there are a lot of budget issues, and so, that's probably likely. If I had to guess, it doesn't seem like that will go into effect. The other one, it's really cool. They have a pilot program now and a lot of districts are participating, I think about 10 to 16 districts. It gives grants to districts to be able to buy local produce from local farmers. It's easy to put a frozen burrito and heat it. That doesn't take a significant wage or a significant number of people. But, if you have fresh lettuce and other fresh vegetables, that takes a lot of labor. This pilot program showed that it is popular to have fresh food in the school. That was what was voted to be and was supposed to go into effect next year, on a large scale across all districts. But they voted to delay that by a year and it's unclear whether it would ever go into effect.

Sedley: Do you have an idea of how those producers and the cafeteria workers are feeling right now, not getting those benefits that they were told?

Brundin: When they caught wind of this, they pushed back and they said this is an important part of the proposition.

A recent voter survey on this budget shortfall by Hunger Free Colorado shows that the locally-grown food portion of the measure had the largest support. So it's clearly why some voters cast a yes vote. But the local producers themselves and the buyers, those guys are the go-between, between schools and the farmers, they really pushed back on this. They were gearing up, they were anticipating funds from schools to be able to buy more food. They were building their capacity, their infrastructure, and their hiring. Some local producers had already planted crops in the ground expecting that schools, next fall, would have the money to buy them.

And so they're disappointed about this. They feel there's a lack of trust. They had done all of these things to make sure that they'd have a buyer for their food and it's not going to happen next year. So they’re pretty disappointed. The cafeteria workers basically say that not implementing this wage hike will increase the burnout in an already burnt-out profession.

Sedley: Are there plans in the works right now for how the shortfall will be made up? Do the schools have to pick up the financial slack?

Brundin: Schools will be okay for this year. They’ve guaranteed that they're going to find that $24 million, but you asked a really good question. They don't know yet where this $24 million will come from. They're going to have to pull from other parts of the budget. And I think there's going to be a bit of a struggle because the governor's people are saying to look into the Education Fund, and that does fund schools, but the Joint Budget Committee members want to find that money from elsewhere in the budget.

So it would mean cuts in other parts of the state budget. They don't know entirely where that will come from. And then, as you know, we talked about for future years, we don't know if the other two elements of the proposition will go into effect.

Sedley: And to be clear, none of the meals will be cut at this point, right? The students will still have access.

Brundin: Right, you're totally right. There didn't seem to be much of an appetite to make only certain children able to have the free meals. That's going to stay in place.

Sedley: Jenny Brundin with Colorado Public Radio. Thank you so much for being here this morning, we appreciate it.

Brundin: Thanks for having me.

Copyright 2024 KGNU. To see more, visit KGNU.

That story was shared with us via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico.

Jackie Sedley is KGNU's Report for America Corps Member where she covers all things environment and climate. Before moving to Mountain Time, she lived in sunny California working as the Internal News Director for KCSB-FM in Santa Barbara. Sedley's journalism career thus far has also included freelancing for the New York Times, producing and reporting for KCRW, and working as Editor-in-Chief for her community college newspaper. Sedley was introduced to journalism during her sophomore year of high school, when she joined her high school newspaper as a novice staff writer. After working her way up to News Editor and eventually Editor-in-Chief, she realized her thirst for reporting was truly unquenchable. Over the past 10 years Sedley has covered raging fires, housing crises, local elections, protests and more. Journalism is both the reason Jackie Sedley wakes up in the morning, and the reason she does not sleep enough at night.