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New bill proposes free school lunches for all students statewide

The bill would allow any student, regardless of socioeconomic background, to have a free school lunch

DENVER, Colorado — A bill introduced in the Colorado legislature would make free school lunches possible for any student regardless of socioeconomic background.

The hope is that it would streamline the complicated process many families have to go through to show that they qualify. The lawmakers behind it also hope that it would remove the stigma many students face when they have a free or reduced school lunch.

Four lawmakers are behind the bill: Sen. Brittany Pettersen, Sen. Rhonda Fields, Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez and Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet.

"We just want free lunch for everybody because we saw during the pandemic that food insecurity is the very first thing to happen. People cannot stop paying for their rent, but they can stop paying for their food," said Rep. Michaelson Jenet, a Democrat from Adams County. 

The law would allow the use of both federal and state funds to create this opportunity for every student. They are still doing work to determine the exact cost, but it could be as low as $30 million or as high as $100 million. 

If parents would like to apply for the program on behalf of their children, they currently have to fill out paperwork and prove they meet the income threshold for eligibility. The process can become too complicated for some families to take on while others feel a sense of shame by going through the process. 

"Many of our students in Colorado get left out because of the way that process is so complex. In this bill, we are going to simplify that and we are going to make it possible that everybody gets lunch for free so there is no more lunch shaming," said Michaelson Jenet. 

During the pandemic, that structure changed. It became a universal benefit that all students could access free school lunches. However, that temporary arrangement is set to expire at the end of the school year. This bill would not only extend that but would make it a permanent fixture. 

The bill has garnered support from community partners as well as non-profits. 

"It is critical right now to invest in the kind of healthy nutritious food that's going to allow our children to be successful and secure a bright future for our children and for our state," said Hunger Free Colorado CEO Marc Jacobson. "We want to make sure that all children have the ability to access those meals free of stigma free of embarrassment." 

Michaelson Jenet says the bill is getting mixed reactions, especially from those who take on a mindset that those who are struggling should "pull themselves up from their bootstraps."

"While certainly self-sufficiency is awesome, the reality of food security that one kid cannot simply pull themselves up from their bootstraps when he comes from a family that doesn’t have enough means for food," said Michaelson Jenet. "We don’t need them feeling this insecurity at school. School should be the place where you can nourish mind and body. This is how we nourish mind and body." 

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