Pending federal legislation on student food aid puts Aurora school districts in limbo

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Aurora Publoc Schools Nutrition Services Employee Kerry Hawley, center, hands out pre-packed meals, June 17, 2022 at Del Mar Park. APS is currently serving 4,000 to 4,500 meals per week.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Potential changes to federal food aid for students may mean Aurora Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District end up serving fewer students meals in the upcoming school year. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expanded its school lunch programs, and through the end of the past school year all students were allowed to receive free school meals without families having to fill out paperwork to qualify.

After being extended through the 2021-2022 school year the waiver of the pre-pandemic regulations was set to expire at the end of June, but on Tuesday a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill in Congress that would extend the waiver through the summer. 

According to reporting from NPR, if passed the legislation would increase reimbursement rates for districts during the 2022-2023 school year, but would require families to go back to filling out applications to qualify for free and reduced meals.

After providing significantly ramped-up meal delivery during the pandemic years, APS and CCSD are currently operating their regular summer meal programs in anticipation of the USDA waiver rules expiring. District officials say the need has decreased from last summer but is still elevated.

“It has a different face this summer but the need is still there,” said Shannon Solomon, APS’ nutrition service director.

The Cherry Creek School District is operating meal sites at four locations during June and July. So far they have been serving about 150 to 180 meals total per day, Director of Food and Nutrition Services Kim Kilgore said, compared to over 800 per day last summer.

The USDA waiver allowed the district to offer meals-to-go during the pandemic, but under the regular requirements families have to eat the meals on site, decreasing the number, Kilgore said. 

Last summer, the district was able to offer breakfast and lunch during the summer, but it’s inconvenient for families to come to the site twice in a matter of hours so this summer it is only offering lunch. The to-go model was much more convenient for families, Kilgore said.

Along with four of its own sites, Cherry Creek is partnering with APS and the city of Aurora to help staff meal sites at Utah Park and Mission Viejo Park.

“That’s been a really great partnership,” she said.

The Aurora Public Schools nutrition department, which served a whopping eight million meals to community members between March 2020 and July 2021, is currently serving about 4,000 to 4,500 meals a week.

The district is partnering with the city of Aurora to deliver meals to the community and its regulations are less stringent. It is still offering grab-and-go meals and it is serving anyone in the community 18 or younger.

Solomon said that the district had partnered with the city during the school year to feed students during breaks, and the city then asked them to partner over the summer.

“They wanted to help with food and we do food well here,” she said.

Multiple families and individuals lined up to receive free meals from Aurora Public Schools Nurtion Services employees, June 17, 2022 at Del Mar Park. APS is currently serving 4,000 to 4,500 meals per week.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

For the upcoming school year, both districts are planning for a major marketing push to encourage families to fill out applications for free and reduced meals since many have fallen out of habit after the past two years. Applications for the upcoming year start on July 1 and are open for the entirety of the fiscal year.

Both districts saw an increase in the number of meals they distributed once all students were eligible for free meals. In Cherry Creek, Kilgore said that the number of breakfasts doubled from 6,000 to 12,000 and the number of lunches increased by about 30% from 19,000 to 26,000. She said making free meals universal cut down on the stigma of the program.

Solomon said that APS saw a 10-12% increase. She hopes that many of those families will fill out applications so they can continue to receive free meals, and said that APS has a lot of different ways it can help people in the community who have nutritional needs.

“If we can’t help you, we have a lot of partners,” she said.

She knew the waiver wasn’t going to last forever, but said that it was a huge help for the district during the pandemic.

“For the last two years we’ve operated with universal meals for everyone, which took away the stigma and was a beautiful thing,” she said.

A bill sponsored by Aurora legislators may preserve that if approved by voters. HB 1414, Healthy Meals for All Public School Students, will reimburse Colorado school districts for meals provided to students who do not qualify federally for free or reduced meals. 

State Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet and Sen. Rhonda Fields cosponsored the bill, which will only take effect if approved at the ballot box this November.

The initiative is supported by the nonprofit Hunger Free Colorado, which in a 2021 survey found that 44% of Colorado households with children struggle to have regular access to nutritious food, and 16% of Colorado children are not getting adequate nutrition because their families don’t have enough money for food.

“Children shouldn’t be going hungry in our schools and we can’t address school hunger without partnering with Hunger Free Colorado, advocates and voters,” Fields said Wednesday on social media. “I can tell you first hand, it’s hard to learn when your stomach is empty.”

Information about Cherry Creek meal distribution times and locations is available at https://www.cherrycreekschools.org/freemeals

Information about Aurora Public Schools meal distribution times and locations is available at https://bit.ly/39J3gOo

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