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Free School Lunch for All - What the Pandemic Taught Us

Good news! Colorado recently passed a law that made school meals free for every student, regardless of financial eligibility. Starting late in 2023, the Healthy School Meals for All program will officially launch in most Colorado school districts. This state-funded program aims to ensure that every kid attending school will have the nutrients they need to continue learning and thriving in their classes.

Let's explore Colorado's lead and others as they follow to bring free school lunches to all students. 

The Reason for the Introduction of Free School Lunches

The progenitor to this program was brought on by the recent pandemic—students relied on meals provided by the school, but as schools shut down, their access to these meals was cut off. Then, as schools slowly reopened, Colorado school districts offered free lunches via waivers to relieve some of the financial pressure that many felt during the pandemic.

State officials saw a 10% - 40% rise in students across several districts partaking in school lunches during this period, then decided that it should be more permanent. Voters agreed—55.1% of Colorado citizens voted "yes" on Proposition FF: to create and fund the Healthy School Meals for All program. But where does the funding come from? The measure promises to generate more than $100 million annually by reducing tax breaks to households earning more than $300 thousand per year.

However, there is bound to be some confusion among parents, as some of their kids may have to fill out an application to opt-in for the free meals, while their siblings that attend other schools may not. This is because many Colorado schools are already participating in the Community Eligibility Provision, which has provided students with free meals since 2020.

All this said, not every school district in Colorado has guaranteed that they will participate in the Healthy School Meals for All program. If you live in Colorado and have a child attending public school, be sure to check with your school district and stay informed.

Leveling the Playing Field

Introducing a free meal program is helping to alleviate peer pressure and stigma against the less fortunate kids who rely on free lunches or cannot afford to buy a meal every day. Since every student, regardless of status, is eligible for a free meal, it levels the playing field in that aspect—no one worries about any child going hungry, at least while at school.

Hunger Free Colorado

GlendaRika Garcia works for Hunger Free Colorado, a nonprofit organization that seeks to end hunger and provide nutrition to children all over her state. As a mom of four teenage boys, she's seen first-hand the positive impact the Healthy School Meals for All program has had on children.

"I think that the kids being able to eat for free at school is really important, for all families, all kids," she said. "Kids can't learn if they don't have good nutrition."

How Other States are Following Suit

Colorado isn't the only state that chose to continue providing free lunches for students. Some states like Nevada, Vermont, and Massachusetts have also decided to extend their free lunch programs to the end of 2023, though some still need to pass bills to make it permanent. 

California and Maine were the first to pass measures similar to Colorado's last year. In Arizona, meanwhile, officials have invested almost $7 million to extend their free school meal program, and it's happening much faster—it's set to launch its benefits for students this month!

Three Cheers for School Staff

The pandemic has been tough on all of us—but especially for those who are either in school, have kids, or have jobs at a school. Teachers, students, and their parents had to transition to virtual and online learning overnight, and they deserve major kudos for blazing through that adjustment so quickly. Suddenly, everyone was homeschooled, putting a lot of pressure on teachers and parents.

Another one of the pandemic's lasting effects was on our supply chain, directly impacting the food supplied to schoolchildren and the staff that prepared it. We're still processing the past few years, and while things are getting better, the pandemic has left a lasting mark on our history. The pandemic has taught us what incredible things teachers are willing to do to continue their work to educate young minds. They are passionate about teaching and learning, and their example should be held in the highest honor.

Written by William Hatch
Education World Contributor
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