Free lunch program expanded under new bill

Vic Vela

More Colorado school children would be eligible for free lunch at school, under a bill that passed a House committee on Feb. 10.

Right now, kids who qualify for the state's reduced lunch program can have their meal “co-pays” waived through the second grade. House Bill 1156 would make free lunches available to children through high school, if they qualify.

“The reality is, when these families are hurting, they are hurting,” Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, the bill's sponsor said . “And that doesn't stop at the third grade.”

Moreno – who once was a recipient of free and reduced lunches when he was a child – has paid close attention to school nutrition issues since he first came into office last year. During the 2013 legislative session, Moreno passed a bill that would require schools with high poverty rates to serve breakfast at the start of the school day.

Moreno's new effort passed the House Education Committee following a party-line vote of 7-6. Republicans balked primarily because the bill would send more money to the program that handles school meals in Colorado, which has been the recent target of an audit for mismanagement of state funds.

The bill would mean that parents like Tamara Frawley of Thornton would no longer be required to pay any sort of reduced fee for their kids' meals. In Frawley's case, that amounts to about 40 cents a day, per child.

“Forty cents doesn't sound like a lot, but when you're on a limited budget, it's an insurmountable amount” she said.

Frawley, who has two children who are enrolled at Mapleton Public Schools in Adams County, said she has struggled to pay bills ever since her husband was diagnosed with cancer six years ago.

“I hold down a 40 hour a week job and two temp jobs, but it still isn't enough,” Frawley told committee members.

Because many more children would be eligible for free lunches, the bill would require an additional $2.4 million in annual state funds to go to a state-run school meal program.

However, those costs would be offset – and then some – through federal reimbursement through the National School Lunch Act. Federal reimbursement is expected to be substantially higher than what the state will be paying for the additions to the free lunch program.

Mapleton Schools, through a pilot program, currently covers the reduced lunch costs of their students, a district where more than 70 percent of children qualify for the program.

“We serve a community that is heavily impacted by the effects of poverty,” said Virgina Styles, assistant director of Mapleton Schools, who was reading a letter in support of the bill from Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio.

But committee Republicans wondered whether it was a good idea to send more funds to a state program that is not doing a good job of handling money right now.

Auditors recently determined that the state's School Lunch and Breakfast Programs forfeited more than $2 million in federal grants and reimbursement dollars, going back to 2009.

Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, offered an amendment to Moreno's bill that would set up an oversight task force to make sure that the money was appropriated correctly.

“It hardly makes sense to expand a program that has obvious problems,” McNulty said.

McNulty's amendment failed. Moreno said that he trusts that Department of Education administrators will implement the audit's recommendations so that there will not be any problems going forward.

The bill now heads to the House Appropriations Committee before it receives a vote from the full House.