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Campaign pushes for free school meals for all Colorado students


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COLORADO — As many students are heading back to school, thousands of children in Colorado are re-enrolled in free and reduced school lunch plans.

A measure on Colorado’s November general election ballot could give every student free breakfast and lunch at school regardless of their family’s income. Schools would receive locally sourced ingredients from farmers and ranchers and be reimbursed for every meal they give out.

Legislators referred the Healthy School Meals for All ballot measure to voters back in May. On Thursday, people campaigned for the legislation at Hillside Hub, a neighborhood food center in Colorado Springs.

The funding for the bill comes from limiting state income tax deductions for Coloradans earning over $300,000. That pans out to be the top 3% of income earners in the state. Anyone earning below that would not be affected by the tax deductions.

Over 40% of District 11 students in Colorado Springs are enrolled in the free and reduced school lunch program this school year.

Brooke Hafner Sassi is a former Calhan elementary reading teacher. She said she’s seen students in her classroom struggle to learn because they were battling hunger.

“She [a student] looked at me squarely and said, ‘Mrs. Sassi, I had nothing to eat last night. My stomach hurts, and my head is fuzzy. I don’t care about reading right now,’” Sassi recalls.

She said even with free and reduced school lunch programs in place, access is still an issue for some families.

“There are people that don’t qualify but still don’t have access to food. And then there are folks that don’t apply because of pride,” she said.

To qualify for free school meals in Colorado, a family of four must earn less than $36,075 per year. To qualify for reduced school meals, that same household can make no more than $51,338 per year.

Those opposing the measure say the public shouldn’t carry the cost of free meals for all students. Colorado State Rep. Andres Pico was one of 22 representatives that voted no on the referendum. He said taxpayers should not have to spend money on things that parents are responsible for doing.

“Parents should provide for their own children and not expect the state’s taxpayers to pick up the tab,” he said.

If approved by voters, Colorado would be the sixth state to pass legislation giving free school meals to all. California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Vermont have all passed laws for free meals for this school year.

If the measure is passed, free meals would be available to all Colorado public school students starting in the 2023-2024 school year.
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