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Colorado: Universal Free Meals To Students Is Close To Reality

Above Photo: First graders, from left, Amorie Castillo, Marah Tellez, and Dona Shaglof eat lunch at S. Christa McAuliffe STEM Academy school in Greeley on Oct. 20, 2022. Andy Cross / The Denver Post.

Colorado – Colorado voters are largely in favor of Proposition FF, which would provide the state’s students with free school meals — no matter their families’ incomes. With tax deduction limits in place, the price tag would fall on wealthy Coloradans.

About 55% of voters backed the measure, with 1,011,114 votes, as of 9:07 a.m. on Wednesday, according to unofficial results on the Colorado Secretary of State Office’s website. That number includes all 64 counties, although post-election reporting is still in progress.

The initiative would establish and fund the Healthy School Meals for All Program. It would boost taxes for households with incomes higher than $300,000 by curbing state income tax deductions. The move would impact about 114,000 joint and single-filer tax returns, or about 5% of those filed in Colorado.

It would hike the overall tax burden of those households by more than $800 for those with incomes of $300,000 to $499,000, and round up to an average of more than $1,150 for those with $1 million or more in annual income.

Ashley Wheeland, director of public policy at Hunger Free Colorado, predicts victory for the initiative.

“This is a massive victory for hungry children,” she said. “The Prop FF campaign began and finished as a community-based effort with grassroots and advocacy organizations, non-profits, education service providers and educators sharing their own stories of how school meals for all would help thousands of Colorado children get the food they need to learn.”

“This effort will continue with community partners as Colorado implements the best school nutrition program in the county.”

The measure would not only help reduce food insecurity in the “expensive” Centennial State, but would also “remove shame for low-income students,” she said.

Wheeland pointed to the federal government’s temporary decision to offer students free school lunches during the coronavirus pandemic, which “showed this works.”

She added that the proposition was penned by Colorado’s policymakers, anti-hunger advocates and community-based organizations “to help our district’s school nutrition departments meet their students’ needs.”

“Once this is implemented in our cafeterias, we can provide every kid in Colorado with a healthy meal made with local, Colorado-grown products,” said Zander Kaschub, a school food and nutrition service worker with the Jeffco Education Support Professionals Association and a member of the Colorado Education Association. “With this program in place, we’ll also show that we care about fair wages and good training for school staff — a key piece of this measure.”

The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union Board of Directors also endorsed the initiative, as it would “allow school districts to use their meal funding to invest in their communities.”

It would also strengthen the state’s regional food systems and local economies, while “creating a link to community agricultural producers,” the board wrote.

“We are encouraged by the results,” said spokesperson Ben Rainbolt. “This can be a win for local foods and local producers and, of course, a win for our kids.”

Jon Caldara, president of Denver-based libertarian think tank Independence Institute, called the proposition “wrong” in many ways.

While he concedes that children from low-income families “should have help,” Caldara argues that the current system already serves those kids free or reduced-cost meals, on top of support from food banks, county and city programs and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The proposition instead “taxes rich families to buy lunches for other rich families,” Caldara wrote in an emailed statement. “Middle, upper and high income families shouldn’t be put on the dole.”

He pointed to one potential consequence as “encouraging wealthy families to stop giving to charity” since tax deductions, including charitable deductions, are limited.

The measure needed a simple majority to pass after being referred to voters by the legislature. A prior bill to pay for universal meals with general fund money stalled.

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