Colorado lawmaker acts fast to secure funding for school breakfasts

Rep. Cherylin Peniston, D-Westminster, announced today that she will introduce a bill to restore funding to the Colorado Department of Education’s free breakfast program. Republican members of the Joint Budget Committee last week thought $125,000 for the breakfast program would be a good place to start cutting expenses to make up for major tax-revenue shortfalls this year.

The JBC was responding to a shortfall caused by the program’s popularity. Republicans led by Colorado Springs Rep. Kent Lambert said school districts could pick up the costs, turn to charities for the money or charge students who qualify for the program 30 cents per meal. The money cut by the JBC would keep the program running until the end of the school year.

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, who sits on the JBC, voted in favor of the funding for the Start Smart Free breakfast program.

“To me it was a no-brainer to vote for this because the money is already in the fund. All we had to do was authorize the spending. It is not a real good signal of what is yet to come. If we are off to something this controversial and divisive and it is only $125,000 and we are only a couple of weeks into the session, that should give you some indication of what’s ahead. What is the Betty Davis Line? ‘Fasten your seats belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.'”

“Being able to provide breakfast each day for our neediest kids is an important function of government. We should not be balancing our budget on the backs of our families in these tough economic times” Said Peniston.

People might be surprised at the effect charging 30 cents a breakfast can have on a family, said Rich Jones, director of policy and research at the Bell Policy Center.

“Democrats made tough cuts in the Majority for years, $5 billion dollars worth of cuts, but we were committed to not cutting at the expense of low-income schoolchildren,” said House Democratic Leader Sal Pace, D-Pueblo. “We simply should not be taking away vital services from those who need them most in these tough economic times.”

“Childhood hunger is a critical issue for Colorado that is only made worse by our challenging economic times,” said Kathy Underhill, Executive Director of Hunger Free Colorado. “While 30 cents a day may not sound like a lot, for families who are experiencing financial hardship it can mean the difference between their kids going to school ready to learn or starting the school day hungry.”

To qualify for free breakfasts in Colorado, a family of four needs to earn less than $28,665 a year, which is 130 percent of the poverty level, which is $22,050 per year. Currently about 8.3 percent of working families in the state live below the poverty level. One person working full time in Colorado for the minimum wage earns $15,309.

If funding doesn’t come through, children who qualify for free meals will still get the breakfasts for free, said Mark Stevens, spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Education. Currently, students qualifying for reduced price meals are also getting breakfast for free. Those are the people who may now have to pay.

Kids qualify for reduced price meals if their families earn up to 185 percent of the poverty level, or about $40,790. Families who earn more than that pay full price for school meals.

If the legislature does not provide funding, it is the families (of four) earning between $28,665 and $40,790 who will have to pay 30 cents for breakfast going forward.

Stevens said the lunch program and the summer meals program are not affected by this funding shortfall. He also noted that the program running out of money early this year is a function of its popularity. “You can tell it is needed by how many people use it,” he said.

Jones said the overall cost to the state does not necessarily go down by $124,000 just because the legislature refused to provide the funding. When funding runs out in March, he says, districts have to absorb the cost of collecting 30 cents a day from kids who used to get their breakfast for free–or the districts can continue providing free breakfasts and absorb the cost.

Beyond the question of whether 30 cents a day is really a hardship for any particular family, he said, is the fact that some of the kids who were getting the free breakfasts are quite young. He said we’re talking about kindergartners.

“What if they just forget to ask their parent for 30 cents? What if they lose it? What if they just can’t find the money once they get to school?” he asks.

He said some schools may let a kid run a tab, some may have an employee who chooses to reach into their own pocket for 30 cents. There are a lot of ways a school can choose to handle the problem, but all of them are more work than just giving the kid a free breakfast. “It just becomes an administrative hassle,” he said. “It makes no sense.”

“We know that if kids don’t get breakfast, it has a negative effect on their performance in school. That is the real harm here. The state saves a little money now but it puts kids’ education at risk. This is a case where we know that a small investment pays off.”

Stevens said some families have multiple kids in the program. “It may just be thirty cents, but if you have three or four kids it starts to add up,” he said.

The Bell Center released a study in December showing that poverty is going up in Colorado. He said that in 2004, about 20 percent of Colorado’s working families earned less than double the poverty level; today it is about 25 percent of families who earn less than $44,100.

In the Pueblo City Schools District, 65 percent of students qualify for free meals and another 10 percent qualify for reduced price meals, said Jill Kidd, director or nutrition services. She said if funding is not restored, the school district will absorb the cost, about $6000 a month.

“It is a really good program, providing great benefits to the district and to the families at a low cost,” she said of the free and reduced price meals. She said the district has found that kids who get breakfast in school tend to be late for school less ofter, call in sick less often, and pay more attention in class.

Additional reporting by Joseph Boven.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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