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Colorado voters to vote on universal free school lunches

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

During the pandemic, the federal government made lunch free to all public school students nationwide. Now, after the program expired this fall, Colorado is among states trying to keep it going. Here's Colorado Public Radio's John Daley.

JOHN DALEY, BYLINE: In a suburb north of Denver, I meet some proponents of that proposal. A woman named GlendaRika Garcia watches her sons toss around a football

(SOUNDBIT OF FOOTBALL THUDDING)

DALEY: She's a bilingual food assistance navigator for Hunger Free Colorado. She signs up people for benefits and makes sure they're eligible.

GLENDARIKA GARCIA: Kids can't learn if they don't have good nutrition.

DALEY: She's glad lawmakers put the measure on the ballot. In part, that's based on her own experience. Garcia, a widow and mother of four, was a recipient of free school lunch when she was a kid.

GARCIA: I think that the kids being able to eat for free at school is really important for all families, all kids.

DALEY: Her son Alonzo is a high school sophomore. He's, at times, noticed classmates leaning on friends for lunch.

ALONZO GARCIA: They ask kids for their food - yeah - or ask the lunch ladies for food.

DALEY: He says some kids avoid the lunchroom rather than admit they qualify for free lunch; others get bullied.

Do you think there's a stigma, Alonzo?

ALONZO: I think that they get embarrassed because they can't afford it.

DALEY: A family of four making less than about $51,000 a year is eligible for free lunch. But supporters say right now, nearly 70,000 Colorado kids above that income threshold still cannot afford school meals. Depending on her job, Garcia at times qualified and at times didn't - a blow to her budget.

GARCIA: And a lot of times, it's a financial burden for the parents.

DALEY: Agriculture is a key part of the proposal. It would provide grants for schools to buy Colorado grown, raised or processed products. Roberto Meza, who farms east of Denver, backs the proposal.

ROBERTO MEZA: So we're here at Emerald Gardens.

DALEY: Under a sunny sky, hundreds of egg-laying chickens in an enclosure are doing their thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS CLUCKING)

DALEY: In a greenhouse nearby, sunshine streams in as large fans whir overhead. Super nutritious microgreens grow in water-fed trays.

MEZA: Imagine children just enjoying the diversity of greens that are available that we're able to grow here in Colorado.

DALEY: Meza says the measure would give farms a solid financial boost.

MEZA: They're our future leaders, so why not invest in them with the best nutrition possible?

DALEY: Low-income students will still keep receiving free meals under current law, whether the proposal passes or not. There's no organized opposition to the measure, but it is drawing some opposition.

JON CALDARA: This is a really stupid idea.

DALEY: Jon Caldara is president of the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank in Denver. Its voters guide recommends a no vote. The measure would raise a hundred million dollars a year by increasing state taxable income, but only for the 3 or 4% who make at least $300,000 a year.

CALDARA: This proposal is, hey, let's get the rich guys to buy our kids lunch.

DALEY: Back in his neighborhood, high schooler Alonzo Garcia thinks the measure would do some good. Two of five Colorado families struggle to put food on the table.

ALONZO: They should be able to eat, too.

DALEY: Colorado mailed ballots to voters October 17. The last day to vote is November 8.

For NPR News, I'm John Daley in Denver.

MARTÍNEZ: This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, Colorado Public Radio and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Daley
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