Healthy and balanced meals are crucial for children’s education, but there are many families that struggle to afford school breakfasts and lunches for their kids. That’s why some La Plata County residents have joined a statewide movement to support a ballot initiative that would provide free nutritious meals to all Colorado schoolchildren.
According to Hunger Free Colorado, the nonprofit that launched the Healthy School Meals for All ballot initiative, more than 60,000 schoolchildren across Colorado can’t afford school meals but don’t qualify for free lunches.
The initiative, if approved by voters, would create the Healthy School Meals for All program in the Colorado Department of Education to reimburse school districts for providing free meals to all students who don’t qualify for free or reduced meals, according to the initiative. It would also make school districts eligible for local food purchasing grants for food sources grown and raised in Colorado.
The measure was referred to the ballot by the state Legislature, largely along partisan lines, with all Democrats in favor and 87% of Republicans opposed, according to Ballotpedia.
Some lawmakers expressed opposition to the idea of providing all children with free meals regardless of income level, according to Colorado Newsline.
“My kids are all grown, but if I had kids, how can I sit here and say my kids should have a free lunch if I’m making six figures? I don’t think that’s right,” Rep. Richard Holtorf, an Akron Republican, said at a hearing. “So I have a fundamental problem with the premise of the bill. People that could afford to pay need to pay to subsidize programs needed to help the people who need the subsidies.”
The ballot measure would establish a funding source for public school meals by limiting state income tax deductions for people who make more than $300,000 annually. Advocates of the initiative say it doesn’t increase anybody’s taxes but closes a “loophole” for the top 3% of Colorado earners.
Tomas German-Palacios, projects coordinator for the La Plata Food Equity Coalition, joined others at the Durango Farmers Market on Saturday to pass out flyers and spread the word about the ballot indicative.
“This is about teaching kids healthy habits,” he said. “They learn when they’re ... 7 or 8 or 9 what healthy meals are.”
He said 19.7% of children ages 2 to 19 are obese. If they remain obese, they can eventually develop diabetes, heart disease or other chronic illnesses that will “cost them and our society lost productivity, huge amounts of money and insurance costs.”
But those costs can be prevented by making sure all kids have access to healthy food in schools, he said.
Dean Vidal, co-owner of Brightwood Farms in Hermosa, testified this year before the Colorado Legislature about the positive impact the initiative could have on kids, families, schools and businesses. Vidal practices season extension and year-round growing on almost 5 acres of land.
“The HSMA initiative offers year-round sales opportunities for local farms, and once they taste the difference, our La Plata students will favor better quality local produce and meat as part of their school meals,” he said in an email to The Durango Herald. “We’re happy to share what we’ve learned about season-extended growing over the decades with farmers interested in putting in the work and increasing their annual income. (Durango School District) 9-R will be looking for school year suppliers!”
He said talking points for the initiative that appear in advocacy materials may be appealing to progressive-leaning voters, but he doesn’t think they drive home how beneficial the program would be to conservative voters.
If the initiative is successful, he said requests for locally produced meats and vegetables should shoot up during the school year, a time that is traditionally short on locally grown, fresh produce.
Evanne Caviness, a rancher in Bayfield and a mother of two, said her family has found itself in the income bracket that qualifies her kids for free lunches and other social services.
It can be challenging for working families with children that are struggling financially to maintain a love for their community when the cost of living is through the roof, she said. She is comforted by the idea of her kids benefiting from free healthy lunches that are sourced from local farmers.
“From our perspective, we know that food raised in a loving, sustainable way is better for the community, it’s better for the Earth,” said Caviness, who is also a member of the National Young Farmers Coalition. “To know that my kids and all the kids in the community can have access to that, it’s just part of their educational experience, is huge.”
Matt Poling, director of food and nutrition services for Durango School District 9-R, said all school children in Colorado should be given free meals, regardless of their family’s income status.
He said free meals for all students remove stigmas associated with free and reduced-price meals. For example, children who qualify for free meals might be self-conscious about whether their peers notice they aren’t paying for lunches.
“We want a kid to feel comfortable going through the breakfast or lunch line and not have to worry about, ‘Do I have money in my account?’” he said.
That is a marked difference from three years ago when a sign was posted in the Miller Middle School cafeteria that read: “Kiddos – Partial lunch will be given to you if you have charges (of) $8 or more. Be prepared for partial lunches from here until the end of the school year!”
News of the school district’s partial lunch policy drew a fierce reaction.
An employee at Miller Middle School started an online fundraiser to raise money for families who were behind on their meal charges. Meanwhile, an online petition signed by more than 900 people sought to ensure all students receive full meals regardless of payment status.
The school district eventually ended its partial-lunch rule.
Beatriz Garcia, Durango mother of three, said the Healthy School Meals for All ballot initiative would eliminate stigma and bolster student performances in the classroom.
“I remember in the past it was an issue with high schoolers where they were in debt,” she said.
Garcia said the ballot initiative addresses school meals, but it helps families in other ways, because it frees up money that can be spent on other things such as child care, rent or mortgage.
“It’s difficult to find housing in Durango specifically and everything is over the top right now,” she said. “How we can support the economy is through this initiative. And how to support the (upcoming) generations, changing this to be a better future for them.”
Well-fed kids will be able to concentrate on their homework, parents won’t stress out over how to pay for school meals and local farmers will thrive with the economic advantages provided by the initiative if passed, she said.
The ballot measure would also help school districts accommodate more particular diets. One of Garcia’s daughters is vegetarian, she said. Until recently, the school district struggled to provide her with vegetarian meals. But funding provided through the free meals program would allow school districts to address special dietary needs.
“I know that there is specific money that goes to low-income families. But we (were) in a crisis during the pandemic and I think that affects everyone in this community,” she said. “So not only low-income families are affected, but working parents, teachers, teachers over at (Fort Lewis College).”
Karla Sluis, spokeswoman for Durango 9-R, said kids who are well-nourished perform better in school.
“Kids struggle to learn when they are hungry,” she said. “We would welcome the opportunity to provide free and nutritious lunches to all our students.”
She said the school district has already collaborated with local farmers for “many years,” and additional funding through the Healthy School Meals for All initiative would help the district strengthen its partnerships with farmers.
“When kids get more fresh food and farmers get more support, it’s a win-win,” she said.
Poling said the school district is working with Sunnyside Meats for its supply of burger patties for the 2022-23 school year. He said local partnerships allow the community to participate in nutrition education for students.
“We’re in the business of education,” he said. “We (school nutritionists) may not be in the classrooms teaching kids, but we are in the cafeterias, in the dining rooms, teaching kids how to eat healthy from a young age.”
It is important to start kids on healthy eating habits when they are young by introducing them to fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains with “well-rounded plates” for every meal, he said.
Poling said Durango School District 9-R is accepting meal benefit applications and that all parents with kids in the district should apply online or at the schools.
“Fill out your meal benefit applications even if you don’t think you’re going to qualify, or maybe you didn’t in the past and you’ve had a life change or a family change or an income change,” he said. “It’s very important to get those applications submitted to us.
“It’s not just about meals. It also affects school title and funding and (can) get students reduced or free sports equipment, bus passes and other things in the community.”