Update: Colorado voters approve free school lunches for all students


GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — When Maria Judith Alvarez’ son was in elementary school, he once returned home from school with his lunch number written on his wrist. It was the school’s way of letting Alvarez know that her son owed lunch money.

“They weren’t going to give him any more food until I went to pay off the debt,” Alvarez told Rocky Mountain PBS in Spanish.

At the time, the family only had one car and one cell phone that Alvarez' husband used most of the time for his job.

“Maybe they tried to get in touch with us with a phone call or a voicemail,” she said, “but with my husband working — you know how some men are — they don’t always answer the phone.”

Alvarez went to the school the following day to pay off the debt and put more money on her son’s account. “I wanted him to feel confident next time he stood in line for a school lunch,” she said.

Eight years have passed that happened, but Alvarez said her son still doesn’t like to eat school lunch. “He waits until he comes home to eat,” Alvarez explained.

Her story and the stories she hears from many other moms in the Glenwood Springs are what motivated her to advocate for Healthy School Meals for All, a program that voters will decide on in the upcoming November election.

If voters approve Proposition FF, the state will create the Healthy School Meals for All Program, which will provide free school meals to students in public schools; provide grants for participating schools to purchase Colorado grown, raised or processed products; increase wages or provide stipends for employees who prepare and serve school meals; and create parent and student advisory committees to provide advice to ensure school meals are healthy and appealing to all students.

A “no” vote on Proposition FF means the current method of funding school meals will continue, where a family of four needs to be making less than $51,000 a year to qualify for free school lunch.

The program will be funded by limiting state income tax deductions for households that bring in more than $300,000 a year.

Ashley Wheeland, director of public policy of Hunger Free Colorado, is an advocate of this ballot measure. “We know that when kids have food, they learn, they do better, [have] less behavioral issues and it decreases childhood hunger when school meals are available to any kid who needs it in school,” she said.

As part of COVID-19 relief, the federal government covered the costs of school lunch meals for all students over the last two years. However, that funding expired ahead of the 2022-23 school year and all school districts in Colorado — except for Greeley-Evans County School District 6 — returned to charging students for school lunch, except those who qualified for free or reduced lunch.

This ballot measure would continue that relief families felt for school lunches throughout the state. If passed, it will only impact the schools that sign up for it.

“If I’m being honest with you, families need to make the hard decision of paying for rent or food,” Alvarez said. “I have four jobs to be able to provide for my children. We all think about the basic necessities: where to sleep, a roof over their heads, what to wear, what to eat. But one of these necessities is always affected to be able to provide fully for them."

Sonia Gutierrez is a multimedia journalist with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at soniagutirrez@rmpbs.org.

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