Bock acknowledged that the money could have gone to new teachers, curriculums or equipment. But she said nothing is more important than the wellbeing of students.
“If students aren’t well nourished going into their school, it doesn’t matter what the curriculum is and what the teachers are doing in the class,” explained Bock. “That’s a fundamental, basic human right. That $2 million could’ve gone to other programs, certainly. But they realized that this program is essential.”
Bock sees free lunches as essential for learning and essential for the social and mental health of the students, too.
“We see kids who have to stand in line to get their school meal stigmatized by their peers for bringing lunch from home and during the pandemic that was erased overnight,” she said. “It gives me goosebumps just talking about it because overnight all kids were eating in the cafeteria, eating the same food.”
“They are the only district in the state that has voted to do so,” explained Jeremy Meyer, spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Education.
“Students that don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals must pay for their meals. We did see an increase in participation when all meals were free,” wrote Bre Riley, the director of the state’s Office of School Nutrition in a statement to Rocky Mountain PBS. “Based on feedback from districts, many are seeing a drop in participation this school year now that students have to be eligible for free or reduced-price meals.”
That is something Auon’tai Anderson understands well.
“I was given that cheese sandwich while other kids got to eat chicken nuggets,” he recalled.
Once a student who received free and reduced school lunches, Anderson is now the vice president of the Denver Public Schools (DPS) Board. DPS is one of the districts that is ending the free school lunch program now that the federal funding has expired.
“I have been asking our superintendent to produce a plan to find a way to cover these lunches for our students,” said Anderson.
DPS already offers free breakfast for the entire district. Anderson is trying to figure out ways to also cover lunches.
“We’re talking about $20 million in funding for 93,000 kids in Denver to have free lunch across the board,” explained Anderson.
That led him to create Feed the Kids Initiative with a two-pronged approach: At the beginning of the school year, he is encouraging all families to apply for free federal school lunch even if they think they will not qualify. Down the road, he wants to fundraise money to pay off any lunch debt accrued over the course of the school year.
“How we can ask partners in our community to come and cover that debt for some of our schools. For folks to adopt a school, maybe it’s a local celebrity?” wondered Anderson. “If Russell Wilson would like to come in and adopt one of our Denver schools, I welcome it. So, he can come and cover that free lunch debt. Ciara can come in and do the same for another school.”
As for Bock, she is not anticipating needing to ask the board for more money next year. “The USDA is planning to approve Colorado’s ability to directly certify students who receive Medicaid services for free school meals,” she explained.
Right now, that is not an option, but Bock hopes it will be starting in the fall of 2023. “With the amount of students in our district that qualify for SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits or for Medicaid benefits, we will be allowed to feed all students for free,” she said.
[Related: Hunger advocates want free school meals for all kids. It's tough sell in Congress]
Lastly, in November, Colorado voters will have the chance to make lunch free for all public school students. If approved, theHealthy Meals For All Public School Studentsprogram will cap tax deductions for Coloradans who make more than $300,000 a year. The money would fund free lunches for about 60,000 students.
Sonia Gutierrez is a multimedia journalist with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org