DENVER — For more than two years, Colorado parents haven't had to worry about their kids coming home from school on empty stomachs.
Federal COVID-19 waivers allowed school districts to provide free meals to all public school students, but those waivers will be expiring soon.
A state bill that passed the House on Friday could help fill the gap.
"With housing prices and food prices going up so much, it's more important than ever that we put in place the opportunity for the future to continue providing healthy, nutritious meals to kids," said Marc Jacobson, CEO of Hunger Free Colorado.
Jacobson supports HB-1414, which would allow Colorado voters to decide in November whether to fund school meals by limiting state income tax deductions for individuals who make at least $300,000 a year.
“The revenue from that will go to support healthy school meals for all public school students," Jacobson said. “We know that’s what’s critical for them to succeed in school, to stay healthy and to thrive."
The proposal would create a program within the Colorado Department of Education to reimburse school districts for free meals provided to students who aren't already eligible for free or reduced lunch under the federal school meal program.
“[The bill] also invests in the ability of school districts to purchase food from local farmers and ranchers here in Colorado so that our students are being nourished by the bounty of our state," Jacobson said.
Jacobson said the measure would boost wages for staff who prepare and serve meals in schools.
A similar measure that would have funded school meals through Colorado's general fund stalled in the state Senate earlier this year.
"We weren’t unfortunately able to get that passed," Jacobson said. "But this opportunity to go to the voters and create a dedicated funding stream that will make sure this is permanent, it's a great opportunity."
If the bill becomes law and a ballot measure sent to voters is passed, school districts could be reimbursed for meals beginning in the 2023-2024 school year.
“There will be a gap year next year where we’ll be back to pre-COVID situation, but we hope that that’s minimal," Jacobson said.
The bill heads to the Senate next, and Jacobson is hopeful it will go up for a vote before the end of the legislative session on May 11.
"We think that there's a lot of support and that we'll be successful," Jacobson said.
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