Colorado’s Popular Free School Meals Program Faces a $50 Million Shortfall


Colorado’s new voter-approved universal free school meals program is already tens of millions of dollars short, jeopardizing some of the auxiliary programs tied to the ballot measure as lawmakers scramble to keep the initiative solvent and meals paid for.

The state faces a combined shortfall of about $50 million to pay for students’ food under the Healthy School Meals for All program in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and in the next. It’s a sign of the program’s popularity in its maiden voyage, advocates say. But the funding gap also presents a steep financial hurdle within a tight state budget and some legislators are hesitant to use general fund money to shore it up.

“We want to feed more kids, not fewer kids,” said Rep. Shannon Bird, a Westminster Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, calling the high participation rate “a great thing.” “Now where we are as a legislature and a budget committee is trying to figure out, how do we responsibly fund feeding all of the kids?”

Lawmakers in 2022 put Proposition FF before voters with the promise that it would pay for school meals for all K-12 students, regardless of family income. The proposition also would pay for wage increases for cafeteria workers, upgrades to school kitchens and grants for schools to buy locally grown foods.

The program’s expected $115 million annual cost was to be paid for by limiting tax write-offs for the wealthiest Coloradans and drawing on federal money. More than 55% of voters approved Prop FF in November 2022.

In its first full year of operation, legislative analysts have found far more kids eating cafeteria food than projected, especially among those who wouldn’t have qualified under the usual poverty guidelines. And far fewer federal dollars are coming in to support the program than expected.

The $50 million shortfall now facing the core meals program doesn’t include another $22 million that it would cost to cover the local food grants and other elements that were slated to take effect next year. Legislative leaders say keeping the meals going is their priority, putting the future of the grants for wage increases, kitchen equipment and locally grown food in jeopardy. Even if those grants go unfunded, the program is expected to be up to $26.5 million in the red next year, on top of a shortfall of up to $24 million this year. The program’s shortfall was first reported by Colorado Public Radio.

Districts expected about a 20% increase in students eating breakfast and lunch at school, said Brehan Riley, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Education’s school nutrition program. But in preliminary figures from the first few months of the school year, the reality is closer to 30% or more — representing nearly 150,000 additional meals served every day compared to the previous year. “We’re just seeing a lot more kids eat at the cafeteria than we’ve seen ever before,” Riley said. “There are some positive pieces to that — they’re getting a full meal (and) they’re maybe not going off campus for meals like they may have before.”

Some districts planned to seek local food grants

The funding gaps leave uncertainty for schools that have begun incorporating more locally grown foods into meals. Sabra Sowell-Lovejoy, a social studies teacher in the Vilas and Campo school districts in southeastern Colorado, has been running a pilot program for locally grown food there. Students immediately took to the fresh vegetables, she said, including a surprising taste for the tops of green onions and parsley. Their preference for tomatoes grown on campus was so strong that they started to snub the store-bought varieties. She noticed that was true among some students who previously had eaten prepackaged foods, like ramen and Hot Pockets, whether because of their taste or economic necessity.

The rural districts are small enough that the new state program’s broader subsidy for students’ regular meals wouldn’t result in huge windfalls, Sowell-Lovejoy said. It’s the local food grants slated for the second year — the ones that will most likely be cut to address the shortfall — that offered the most potential, both for the local growing economy and for keeping fresh, local food in the schools.

Sowell-Lovejoy spent years working with area growers to build interest and host training sessions, she said. “It’s very, very exciting that schools are considering this, and they’ve bought into this idea,” she said. “That’s really wonderful because, ideally, our schools should be serving fresh, nutritious, local foods. It’s a part of the Colorado economy that we really need to build, so that’s hopeful.” Now she’s concerned the state might pull back on that part of the program amid the funding crunch — a worry shared by Rachel Landis across the state, in Durango. She’s the executive director of the Good Food Collective, a nonprofit group that works to increase access to healthy food. She said her phone started ringing almost as soon as Proposition FF passed.

School dining directors from across the southwest corner of the state, along with some three dozen farmers, soon were talking about how to work with the program to boost the local agricultural economy and help feed kids. That effort could face a struggle if the state’s grants don’t materialize. “(Growers and administrators) got really excited, but it’s going to be tough to sustain funding in a state where funding for education in general, and other crucial services, can be really limited,” Landis said. “… The framework and the value is still there. The resources are not. But if there’s one thing rural communities are really good at, it’s being scrappy and doing things without the resources to back them.”

Bird, the budget committee’s chair, said she’s committed to making sure the core free meals part of the program stays intact. But the grants for school food services and local growers are more likely to depend on how federal money and tax collections come in. Fulfilling those parts of the program may even require another ballot measure to ask voters for more money, she said. No legislation has been introduced yet to address the shortfall in the near or long term.

Weighing conflicting funding priorities

Right now, the focus is on maintaining the meals program’s near-term solvency and avoiding cuts to other state programs to pay for it. “I know voters want this, but they also want state government to do all the other things they’ve asked us to do, like paying for K-12, making a fair contribution to higher education, environmental protection, paying for our courts and such,” Bird said. “When people vote for new benefits, I know it doesn’t mean that we want less of these other things.” Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Brighton Republican who serves on the budget committee, said she wouldn’t support tapping into the state’s general fund since that would mean a de facto cut for other state programs, from Medicaid to the Department of Corrections. She called on the Department of Education to wrangle more federal dollars and to operate the program within its means. “When this was going through, the voters weren’t told this could cost general fund money,” Kirkmeyer said. “… They were told this would cover the costs of healthy meals for every kid in school. And it doesn’t cover it.” U.S. Rep. Brittany Pettersen championed the healthy school meals program while serving in the state Senate. Now in Congress, the Democrat says she’s working to increase and expand the federal reimbursement program for school meals. She highlighted a provision in President Joe Biden’s budget proposal that would put more money into a key funding source for school meal reimbursements.

The voter-approved program “has already helped thousands of students and schools across Colorado, and we need to do everything we can to ensure it can continue to get meals to the kids who need them,” Pettersen said in a statement. The state needs to meet promises it makes to voters — and it also should take greater care to ensure “the numbers work” for measures the legislature puts on the ballot, said Colorado Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat. “We need to sort of right-size the program or figure out other sustainable revenue sources,” he said. “But it clearly can’t be something that, every single year, we just have to put an additional tens of millions of dollars in it to do what the initial measure said it would do. We have to figure out a more sustainable path.”

Article courtesy of Nick Coltrain, The Denver Post

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