Bill to expand free lunch program awaits final approval

Bill to expand free lunch program awaits final approval

(Colo.) Just a year after expanding Colorado’s free lunch program to cover eligible children through middle school, state lawmakers are poised to expand the program once more to cover all K-12 students.

Currently, the state’s child nutrition lunch protection program provides meals at no charge to low-income elementary and middle school-aged children who would otherwise have to pay a reduced-price for lunch.

Under a bill sent to the governor’s desk last week, the program would allow students to participate through high school as well.

Supporters noted that expanding the program would ensure no student goes hungry simply because they reach high school.

The move is part of a national push throughout the country to improve and expand school nutrition programs.

Earlier this year, a bill was introduced in California that would incentivize schools to offer healthier, climate-friendly lunch options such as plant-based entrées and plant-based milk.

Researchers from the Yale School of Public Health have reported that in schools with enhanced nutrition policies and programs, students had healthier body mass index trajectories over time, and by the end of the study, reported healthier behaviors than their peers in schools without those policies.

At the same time, Wisconsin lawmakers proposed to require schools to provide breakfast or lunch to any student who requests it regardless of their ability to pay in an effort to reduce “lunch shaming,” or the act of publically identifying or stigmatizing students who are unable to pay for a meal or who have outstanding meal debt.

New Mexico became the first state to officially end lunch shaming in 2017, and has since been followed by states including Illinois and Iowa.

Meanwhile, at least six states have passed legislation requiring breakfast be served after the bell in schools that already have a large percentage of students from low-income homes, according to No Kid Hungry, a D.C.-based non-profit that aims to end childhood hunger in the U.S. Studies have shown that eating a healthy breakfast is associated with stronger academic performance, reduced tardiness and absenteeism rates, improved health and a reduced risk of developing an eating disorder, depression and anxiety.

Colorado’s School Lunch Protection Program allows children who would otherwise have to pay for a reduced-price lunch to receive their meal for free, and reimburses participating schools the difference between the federal reimbursement for free meals and reduced-cost meals for students in pre-K through eighth grade.

To be eligible for free meals, family income must be less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level–which is $32,630 for a family of four in fiscal year 2018-19. To be eligible for reduced-cost meals, family income must be between 130 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty level–or $46,435 for a family of four.

For the 2018-19 school year, the program reimbursed 40 cents per reduced-cost meal, and received a total state appropriation of approximately $2.2 million.

To expand the program once more to cover high school students, legislative analysts said lawmakers would need to allocate close to an additional $464,000 in fiscal year 2019-20 and about $478,000 in 2020-21.

The bill was co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of more than 50 state senators and representatives.

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