Cherry Creek School District has seen a 30% increase in students eating school lunch since a change in state law made school lunch free for all students, regardless of financial need.. File Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Mirroring trends across the country as an increasing number of schools offer free lunch to all students, not just those who prove they’re needy, local lunch lines are growing.

More Aurora students than anticipated have taken part of the state’s new program that provides free meals for everyone, regardless of financial status. 

Efforts to offer more free lunches in Colorado and across the nation were boosted Tuesday by federal officials who announced that Millions of additional students in schools serving low-income communities will be eligible to receive breakfast and lunch at no cost under a rule change.

Changes in Colorado are already having an effect in local schools.

Voters in 2022 approved Prop FF, which raised taxes on wage earners making more than $300,000 a year. The new revenue funds free lunch programs for all students, regardless of need, for school districts that sign on to the program.

State education officials this week said that almost every school district in the state has signed onto the new free-lunch program.

Cherry Creek School District expected to see a 30% increase in the number of students participating in their free meal program. 

Kim Kilgore, director of food nutrition services, said that they used to serve between 24,000 to 25,000 lunches and breakfasts a day. Now they have served between 32,000 and 34,000 meals a day in the past couple of weeks. 

Aurora Public Schools anticipated to serve an additional 2,000-4,000 lunches and 3,000-5,000 breakfasts per day. They have surpassed that amount and now they serve 2,500-5,000 extra lunches and 4,000-6,000 breakfasts per day this school year.

“I think it takes the stress off of families to have to worry about providing breakfast before kids get to school or packing their lunch or having lunch money. And it really just levels the playing field,” Kilgore said. 

While the state does not have specific data yet, the Colorado Department of Education has heard from dozens of school districts that more breakfast and lunches have been served this school year. 

APS spokesperson Corey Christiansen said that they “are still working on communicating with our families and educating them about the free meals for all program and hope to see even more families take advantage of this as the school year goes on.” 

While students are automatically enrolled in the program, Kilgore recommends that families continue to fill out the application if they qualify for free or reduced lunches because it will allow them to receive other benefits.

Jeremy Meyer, spokesman for the DOE, said that family’s income information “is vital for districts to continue to receive full access to state and federal funding.”

Nationally, at schools where 25% of families participate in income-based public benefits, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, the federal government now will cover the cost of free meals for all enrolled students. Previously, the qualifying threshold was 40%.

Roughly 3,000 additional school districts serving more than 5 million students will now be eligible, officials said.

“While there is still more work ahead to ensure every K-12 student in the nation can access healthy school meals at no cost, this is a significant step on the pathway toward that goal,” said Stacy Dean, USDA deputy under secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services.

During the pandemic, Congress temporarily made universal meals free to all students, but that ended last year. Other federal programs that provided direct food assistance to families also scaled down amid soaring food prices, putting strains on family budgets and leaving some kids hungry.

The new rule will expand access to universal meals through a program known as the Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP. Instead of requiring families to fill out individual applications for free or reduced-price meals, schools participating in the program receive federal funding based on income data, with local or state money filling in any gaps in the cost of offering meals to all students. Advocates say reducing administrative burdens like applications helps ensure children don’t go hungry.

Some have criticized the costs of the program. The Republican Study Committee has called for eliminating the CEP altogether, arguing it ignores the individual income eligibility of each student.

Nationally, expanding a community-based model of universal meals would alleviate burdens on many families, said Anna Korsen, policy and program director at Full Plates Full Potential, a nonprofit organization in Maine that works on maximizing access to school meals.

“The federal poverty guidelines that dictate who gets a free meal and who doesn’t are really outdated,” Korsen said. “There are so many families that on paper don’t qualify for a free meal, and they can get lumped into this group of … families that can afford to pay for lunch or breakfast at school. But really, those families are living paycheck to paycheck.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the rule change is a step toward fulfilling the promise of healthy school meals for all.

“Increasing access to free, healthy school breakfast and lunch will decrease childhood hunger, improve child health and student readiness, and put our nation on the path to better nutrition and wellness,” he said.

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