Breakfast bill passes committee

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A bill that would provide free breakfast for many Colorado students at the start of each school day is making its way through the legislature.

The proposed legislation – which is called the "Breakfast After the Bell Nutrition Program" – passed the House of Representatives Education Committee following a hearing Monday, with an 11-2 vote.

The bill would require schools to provide a free breakfast to every child in schools where 70 percent or more of the student population is eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch.

Several educators attended the hearing to voice their support of the bill. One of whom was Julie Fahey, a principle at Queen Palmer Elementary School in Colorado Springs, which instituted a free breakfast program a couple of years ago that she said has been successful.

"Food fuels not just the stomach, but the mind," Fahey said in her testimony before the committee.

Robin Sutherland, a teacher at Queen Palmer, said that before her school offered free breakfast, many of her students would fall asleep at their desks, or struggle academically. After her school's program was implemented, Sutherland said that the start of school has become "a positive beginning to our day."

The bill, which is being sponsored by Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, is in part modeled after a program that was instituted at Adams 14 school district in 2010, where 84 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced lunches, according to Moreno.

Moreno said in an interview prior to the hearing that before the program, only about 20 percent of those children were eating breakfast before school. After the program was put in place, about 98 percent of the students were having breakfast, the lawmaker said.

Moreno said that, if the bill passes, schools would not end up paying for the breakfast program. He said that federal funds from the USDA's Federal School Breakfast program would reimburse schools for the cost, and then some.

"Not only do they (the federal government) cover the cost, but schools end up having more money for their nutrition program," which can go toward food equipment costs, Moreno said prior to the hearing.

If the federal funding ever ends up going away, so too does the mandate, Moreno said.

Many schools in the Denver Metro area would be required to offer free breakfast to students, if the bill passes.

JeffCo Public Schools, for example, had 22 schools last year where at least 70 percent of the students qualified for free and reduced lunch programs, according to information provided by the district. Molholm and Lumberg Elementary Schools each have student populations where more than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches. Jefferson High School's population is about 87 percent.

JeffCo Public Schools spokeswoman Melissa Reeves said in a recent interview that the school board hasn't taken a position on Moreno's board as of yet, because "we really don't know what the legislation is going to eventually look like."

Reeves did say that JeffCo Schools already has programs in place that allow many of its students to receive free breakfast.

"We have the highest homeless population in the state and we take that seriously," she said prior to the hearing.

No one testified in opposition to the bill Monday. Republican lawmakers Chris Holbert and Justin Everett voted against moving the bill forward.

Moreno said that he is optimistic the bill ultimately will pass with support from both sides of the aisle.

"Feeding kids and making sure they're prepared for school is a bipartisan issue," he said.

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