Efforts to Keep Healthy School Meals in Rural Colorado Free for All | LOR Foundation

Efforts to Keep Healthy School Meals in Rural Colorado Free for All

By Ilana Newman, The Daily Yonder

Montezuma County

The doors to the Mancos Elementary School cafeteria with posters advertising school meals and other programs aiming to reduce food insecurity in youth. (Photo: Ilana Newman)

This story was produced through the Daily Yonder Rural Reporting Fellowship, with support from the LOR Foundation.

In Colorado, Healthy School Meals for All (HSMA), an initiative that currently provides every K-12 student with free breakfast and lunch, is facing a budget deficit that could possibly take away benefits for rural Colorado schools, children, and food producers.

A 2023 Feeding America study found that 9 in 10 food-insecure counties in the United States are rural. One of the biggest challenges for access to food in rural areas is geography. For many rural residents, it’s nearly impossible to get to a grocery store without a vehicle. But for food insecure children, access to nutritious food at school improves both mental and physical health, as well as better learning outcomes. 

In Colorado, 1 in 3 Coloradans are food insecure and 1 in 6 children are not getting adequate nutrition. In Montezuma County, in rural Southwest Colorado, 57% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch in 2022. 

Healthy School Meals for All was established through Proposition FF on the 2022 Colorado ballot and was passed by 56.75%. The initiative provides school lunches to every K-12 student in Colorado, regardless of income, which also reduces the stigma of the free or reduced lunch program. To fund Healthy School Meals for All, the initiative taxes earners above $300,000 a year.

“It is making a big difference for addressing food insecurity,” said Anya Rose, director of public policy at Hunger Free Colorado, about Healthy School Meals for All. “It’s helping families manage budgets. It can save Colorado families about $1,250 per child each year, and that’s really helpful in a state where cost of living is rising.”

The program was implemented at the beginning of the 2023 school year. However, the participation rate was greatly underestimated, with a 31% increase in school lunch participation and a 36% increase in school breakfast participation, according to Rachel Landis, executive director of the Good Food Collective. Additionally, the overall reimbursement for each meal through the USDA was decreased in 2024 due to the expiration of the Keep Kids Fed Act (although the USDA rate was increased slightly).

The increase in the number of kids eating school lunches who did not qualify for free or reduced lunch (which is federally funded) before left Colorado schools with a deficit of $24 million dollars this year, and will increase to $50 million next school year. 

The original proposition included two phases.

Funding Healthy School Meals for All in full would allow for the implementation of phase two of the program, which includes local purchasing reimbursements, and increased wages for cafeteria workers, who are facing burnout with the higher student participation rates and the resulting increased workload, as well as community advisory groups.

Without additional money, funding for universal meals will run out at the end of the 2025 school year.

Locally Sourced Food

Currently, Colorado has another program called the Local Food Program Pilot that provides some funding for local procurement for rural schools that will continue through the 24-25 school year. Funding for this program is $500,000 compared to the HSMA’s almost 10 million dollars, said Landis.

At Mancos School District, in Montezuma County, Kasey Armes said that one of the biggest benefits of Healthy School Meals for All is the elimination of student meal debt.

Mancos Elementary School in Montezuma County, Colorado where Kasey Armes strives to get local, fresh food on student’s plates. (Photo: Ilana Newman)

“Our program would operate in the negatives all the time,” said Armes. “It has also helped the families because they don’t have to worry about paying for it anymore and they know that their student can come to school and get a breakfast and a lunch every single day for free.”

Armes also said that Mancos schools have served at least 15,000 more meals this school year than previous years.

Armes tries to source food locally as much as possible and currently receives money through the Local Food Program Pilot to help source local products. “We’ve served nothing but local beef for the last two years because of the grant,” said Armes, going on to say that even if they did not have the grant, she would continue to buy local beef. “It’s just the best beef there is,” she said.

Janna Neely is a bison rancher based in Southwest Colorado, who sold bison patties to Southeast Utah schools last year. Being located in the rural Four Corners, an area around a 7-hour drive from the Denver Metro area and removed from the front range, means that sourcing from producers across state lines is often more “local” than sourcing from elsewhere in the state. But for most local food reimbursement programs, including Colorado’s Healthy School Meals for All, “local” means in-state.

“Without that additional funding we can’t compete with ‘beef crumbles’,” said Neely, referring to the beef product that would be sourced from a standard cafeteria provider compared to her locally raised bison that costs more than most schools can afford without subsidies.

Funding for reimbursement for local producers can help support rural economies and give small producers the security of large accounts that can be hard to find otherwise. Landis with the Good Food Collective is currently working to connect Southwest Colorado producers with cafeteria managers to help both rural schools and rural producers.

“If all members of that supply chain know the funding is there, they can rely on it. A school director can build multi-year relationships with a farm, and plan ahead. A farmer, in turn, can invest in the additional equipment needed to grow their farm’s business and hopefully bring themselves out of poverty,” said Landis.

What’s Next for Healthy School Meals?

After the budget deficit became apparent, the Healthy School Meals for All Coalition, headed by Hunger Free Colorado and including more than 100 organizations and individuals, tried to get a referred ballot measure through the Colorado Legislature. The ballot measure would have proposed lowering the tax threshold to $250,000 to fully fund the program.

Now, the Coalition, headed by Hunger Free Colorado and including over 100 organizations and individuals, is hoping to get Healthy School Meals for All funded through a bill during the next legislative session, said Landis.

Flyers in English and Spanish on the Mancos Elementary School cafeteria advertise healthy school meals. (Photo: Ilana Newman)

In the meantime, many Colorado schools, including Mancos according to Armes, will fill the budget gap by qualifying for Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a USDA program for schools and school districts with a certain percentage of low-income students that funds free school meals for all (not just the low-income students). In the past, the minimum identified student percentage was 40%, but in September 2023, the threshold was lowered to 25%, which allows more schools to qualify.

Universal school lunches do most good for the population of food-insecure children whose families do not qualify for federal nutrition programs like SNAP and free or reduced-price lunches. For example, to qualify for free lunch in Colorado in 2022, a household of two must make less than $23,803 a year. Many families still struggle with food insecurity and make more money than this threshold.

In Montezuma County, seven percent of food insecure children are likely ineligible for support
— meaning their families have incomes more than 185% of the poverty line, but still don’t make enough to live comfortably. Landis said this is the population benefiting the most from having free and nutritious school meals available for everyone.

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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