Bill that would provide free lunch for more Colorado students moves forward

A bill that would expand a state subsidy for school lunches passed the Senate Education Committee on Thursday.

Colorado already picks up the cost of school lunch for elementary-aged children who qualify for reduced-price but not free meals under the federal lunch program. This bill would expand the benefit to cover middle school students.

The five yes votes included two Republicans, state Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, and state Sen. Kevin Priola of Brighton. That’s enough Republican support to get this bill out of the Senate and over to the House, where Democrats have a majority.

The state program supplements the federal school lunch program. The federal government picks up the whole cost for families who earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $31,980 for a family of four, and most of the cost for families who earn up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $45,510 for a family of four. For kindergarten through fifth grade students in the latter group, the state covers the 40 cents that children who qualify for reduced-price lunch would otherwise have to pay.

School nutritionists said they see a big drop-off in students eating hot lunch in middle school, when some low-income parents become responsible for lunch fees after having them covered when their children were younger. The Cherry Creek School District, which continues to cover those fees out of its own funds, doesn’t see the same drop off.

Fabiola Flores, a junior at DSST: College View and a youth member of Padres y Jovenes Unidos, told the committee about a time she lost the loose change she carried to elementary school for lunch and was handed a hard peanut butter sandwich instead of the hot meal her classmates got.

“This bill is bigger than me,” she said. “Every day, I see students not eat because they don’t want to add fees. This bill can be the difference between a student having a hot lunch or going hungry.”

The bill would authorize the state to spend between $500,000 and $750,000 a year to pay that 40 cents for middle school students who qualify. Legislative analysts estimated the state could provide 1.4 million free lunches for $564,000 in the first year.

“We want our kids to be focused on academics and not on ‘where is my next meal coming from?’” said state Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat who co-sponsored the bill.

Two Republican senators, Owen Hill of Colorado Springs and Tim Neville of Littleton, voted no. Hill noted that school districts could choose to cover the extra 40 cents themselves if they saw a need.

“I support the idea, but when I look at the overall budget, the only thing that gives is K-12 education or higher ed,” he said. “In this case, if it comes out of K-12 education, it goes from one bucket to another.”