Proposition FF would likely have impacts beyond school cafeterias
Proposition FF is one of eleven ballot measures facing Colorado voters during this year’s midterm elections. The proposition would create new funding for school lunches by adding a tax on Coloradans who make over $300,000 per year. If it passes, it would provide free lunches and other food at all public schools across the state.
There’s urgency behind Proposition FF because, according to Hunger-Free Colorado, a group working to address food insecurity in the state, food insecurity spiked during the pandemic. The group found that two out of five kids in Colorado are now food insecure.
“It's not just hunger, but it's food insecurity so that you can't afford healthy food,” says Ashley Wheeland, the Hunger-Free Colorado’s Public Policy Director. “You can't afford food that's nourishing for your body. You have to cut corners, go junk food. Whatever to survive.”
She says the existing free and reduced-price lunch program isn’t working. Only 40% of kids who qualify actually participate in it, largely because of stigma.
“Are they going to get in line, and everyone's going to know they're the free and reduced lunch kid?” Wheeland says. “Or is it that they owe money to the school for meals, and someone is going to remind them of that in the lunch line.”
That stress drives some kids to decide it’s better to just wait until after school to try to find something to eat. When kids go hungry, there are ripple effects — for example, it impacts their behavior and their ability to learn.
Danielle Bock, head of nutrition services in the Greeley-Evans School District, says teachers sometimes spend their own money to feed students.
“Our teachers want to see their students thrive,” she says. “They're buying snacks; they're buying food.”
Greeley is the only district in the state that already provides free lunch for all its students. Bock was involved in making that happen and has seen firsthand the difference it can make.
Some opponents of Proposition FF say providing free school lunches will give free food to wealthy students who don’t need it, and that funding should be used in more targeted ways, like for certain academic programs. But Bock says it’s great if all kids utilize free lunches.
“What we know for certain is that when all students are eating together, all students are succeeding more,” she says. “Not dividing our students into the haves and the have-nots is hands down the best way to ensure that our students are nourished and therefore capable of learning.”
She also says they already have clear evidence that providing students free meals effectively eliminates school meal stigma.
“We saw during the pandemic — when we were operating under those waivers and feeding all students — we saw it absolutely disappear literally overnight,” Bock says. “My colleagues and I still are astounded by this because we all believed that it would take decades.”
Proposition FF would mean security for families
Lupita Cardoza has seven kids in the Boulder Valley School District, ranging from elementary school all the way up to high school. For her, providing regular, healthy meals for each of them is a major priority.
“I think of it as a student right,” she says. “And as their parents, we have to take care of the students. School is our children’s second home.”
But making sure that happens can be a challenge, especially at school. During the pandemic, schools offered free lunches, but that program stopped at the beginning of this year. Now, families have to pay for meals once again. Some can qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, depending on their income level. Cardoza’s family qualifies, for example, but stigma sometimes gets in their way of taking advantage of it.
“My daughter receives free lunch,” she says. “But she’s afraid to get lunch because she thinks her friends will laugh.”
Cardoza says that means her daughter comes home hungry some days.
“Imagine the consequences when a kid doesn’t eat at school,” she says. “I believe food is for everyone at school. Kids shouldn’t be suffering over food.”
Eliminating stigma and burdens over food insecurity are the reasons for support of Proposition FF, which is on the ballot in the upcoming midterm election. She says the ballot measure will make a big difference in her family’s life.
“If this proposition passes, it would mean security for my family more than anything,” she says. “If not, there will be inequity.”
With newfound security, she says her and her kids can focus on what’s important — their education.
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