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More states consider universal free school lunch after federal assistance ends

Posted at 2:37 PM, Nov 18, 2022

According to the nonprofit Feeding America, hunger rates rose drastically during the pandemic. One in 5 kids lived in a household that couldn't afford enough nutritious food.

Some U.S. voters this past election want to make sure, no matter what, their kids eat well at school. There’s a growing movement to push for free lunches.

Colorado is now the third state to implement a universal free lunch program, alongside California and Maine.

Ashley Wheelend works for Hunger Free Colorado, an organization that advocates for access to anti-hunger programs. She says a growing number of states are interested in creating a free lunch program to replace the federal program from the 2021 to 2022 school year.

"When you have access to school meals for children who need them, you have less kids with academic issues. You have less behavioral issues," Wheeland said.

The intent was to buffer families from the spike in hunger and economic hardship caused by the pandemic. Georgetown University professor of public policy Krista Ruffini explains the federal government waived the income requirements to qualify for free and reduced lunches.

"And so, what this meant is if a school applied, then all of the students would be able to get free school meals regardless of how much their family's income was," Ruffini said.

However, that ended this past summer. Since then, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Washington and Wisconsin have introduced free lunch-related bills. Colorado's bill is the only one that made it onto the ballot.

"We'll use all of the federal resources we can like free and reduced lunch," Wheeland said. "But those students who don't qualify for that and need it will still be able to get the food they need and the state will pay the difference."

The state will pay the difference by raising income taxes for Colorado's top 5% of earners.

"In the case of Colorado, they're paying for it through essentially increasing taxes on families that are earning the most," Ruffini said. "So, they're limiting the state income tax deduction that married couples earning more than $300,000 are eligible to take."

Before it was passed, critics questioned whether the free meal program was necessary since low-income students will continue receiving free meals under federal law. However, Wheeland says the universal nature of this program could help normalize the idea of free lunches for all students, reducing shame for those who rely on it. Wheeland says this effect was seen during the federal government free lunch for all program.

"Across the state, we saw about a 19-20% increase in more kids eating lunch in Colorado," Wheeland said. "So, over 68,000 more kids a day."