This story was updated on May 9 to indicated that the bill passed both the House and the Senate.
Fabiola Flores remembers losing her lunch money one day at recess when she was younger. She was served a hot lunch, she said, but then had to give it back for a dry peanut butter sandwich because she did not have any money.
“I cried that day because other kids made fun of me for not having the same hot lunch they had,” Flores, now a junior at DSST: College View, told the Senate Education Committee last Thursday.
Shaming students who don’t have enough money for lunch can come in many forms: giving students an “alternate” meal like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, placing a stamp on their hand that says they owe money, or throwing away their food when they have unpaid debts on their lunch account.
“This problem is bigger than me,” Flores told the committee. “Every day I see other students decide not to eat so they don’t add any fees to their account.”
Lawmakers across the country are reacting. There are 17 enacted or pending bills in state legislatures dealing with the issue of making school lunches more affordable, and often specifically addressing lunch shaming, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Lunch shaming adds humiliation to hunger. And here in Colorado, where about a third of the state’s Pre-K through 12 students are eligible to free or reduced-price lunches, students, teachers and advocates are asking the state to help them keep focused on work and not hunger.
“One in five kids struggle with food insecurity in the state of Colorado,” said Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora. “And I would like kids to focus on their academics and learning and not on wondering where their next meal is going to come from while they’re in school.”
Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, listens to testimony in the Senate Education Committee on a bill to expand a free lunch program on Jan. 26.
Under current law, the federal government will pay the entire cost of a student’s lunch, about $3.30, if they earn below 130 percent of the federal poverty line. That’s about $31,980 for a family of four. Families that earn below 185 percent of the federal poverty line (about $45,510 for a family of four) qualify for reduced-price lunches. The federal government pays most of the cost of reduced-price lunches and families pay the rest, about 40 cents for each meal. In 2008, Colorado began picking up that 40-cent family co-pay for that state’s youngest students. It has since expanded the subsidy and now covers pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students. In the 2016-2017 school year, that subsidy totaled about $1.5 million and covered the family cost for 3.7 million meals, according to the Department of Education’s Office of School Nutrition.
Fields is among lawmakers who now sought to expand the subsidy so it pays the tab for students in sixth through eighth grade, as well. With less than a week left in the legislative session, bill cleared both the House and Senate. The governor is yet to sign it.
Forty cents per day may not sound like much, but for a family living on the margin it can be the difference between a child eating and not eating, said Julie George, policy director at LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting healthy eating and active living.
“That 40 cents does make a difference when they are making hard decisions about keeping the heat on or paying bus fare to get to work or, if they have a car, buying gas,” George told The Colorado Independent.
It’s unlikely students who can’t afford the copay would be able to bring a lunch to school that is as nutritious as a hot lunch, said Erin Miller, vice president of health initiatives for Colorado Children’s Campaign.
“Districts that have a high number of kids that qualify for reduced-priced meals see a 20 percent decline in participation from fifth to sixth grade,” Miller told The Colorado Independent. “It’s clear that the copay is a barrier. So those kids are hungry.”
Amie Baca-Oehlert, vice president for the Colorado Education Association, said children cannot be expected to learn when they are hungry. Baca-Oehlert, who also worked in Northglenn High School in Adams District 12 teaching language arts, said students who are hungry have a hard time participating and sometimes just put their heads down on the desk.
“For many, the meal that they receive at school is the only food they’ll receive for the day,” she told The Colorado Independent.
She wants all students in K-12 to receive free lunches from the state. Other states, including Oregon, Washington, D.C., Minnesota, and Vermont, offer free lunches to all students who qualify for reduced-price lunches, according to the Food Research and Action Center. Currently, about 71,076 pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade students in Colorado are eligible for reduced-cost lunches, about eight percent of the total student population, according to the state Department of Education. This is up from 68,302 students the prior year.
Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, a lead sponsor on the bill, said the legislation does not cover high schoolers because he was concerned about whether the gains resulting from the program would be the same when some schools let students leave for lunch.
“I am taking a much more advised and incremental approach,” Gardner told the committee.
Not all lawmakers are convinced the proposed law is a good idea. Republicans on the Education Committee were split on the bill; two voted against it and two voted for it.
Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, voted against the bill in committee, saying that while he supports the idea, money for education spending is tight and the cost of the expanded co-pay would have to come out of the existing state education budgets.
The expanded program will cost the state $564,279 next fiscal year to cover the 40-cent copay on an expected 1.4 million reduced-cost lunches, according to the Legislative Council.
In the meantime, some students may rely on others for their meals. Jasmine Gonzalez, also a junior at DSST: College View who told lawmakers she also experienced the shame of not having enough money for hot lunch, said she still sometimes turns around to see a friend who is sitting there without any food during lunch.
“There are days where other students share their food with him,” Gonzalez told the Education Committee. “But other days, he just doesn’t eat.”
Feature photo: Fabiola Flores, a junior at DSST: College View, testified the Senate Education Committee on Jan. 25 to support free lunches for middle schoolers. Photo by John Herrick for The Colorado Independent.
Correction: This story previously stated that some states offer free lunch to all students. It was corrected on Feb. 2 to say some states offer free lunch to all students that qualify for reduced-price lunches.
Disclosure: LiveWell Colorado is an underwriter of The Colorado Independent’s coverage of health equity issues. In accordance with the Independent’s editorial independence policy, underwriters have no control over story selection or content.