On January 20, Colorado lawmakers introduced a Healthy School Meals for All bill to the state legislature – a move that’s being celebrated by activists, school officials, and members of the community.

It’s also being backed by nonprofit groups such as Hunger Free Colorado, which strives to make nutritious, affordable foods accessible to all Coloradans.

The bill, which would make free, healthy meals available to all public-school students in Colorado, is co-sponsored by four state legislators – Sen. Brittany Pettersen, Sen. Rhonda Fields, Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet and Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, all of whom are Democrats as well as mothers.

“Every child has a right to have access to a quality meal, fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and a nutritional meal,” said Fields. “And a lot of times, in the community I serve, you don’t have access to that kind of stuff.”

School lunches are a service for poorer families, many of whom experience food insecurity and aren’t always able to provide meals for their kids at home.

Several years ago, Fields said, a boy at a school in Aurora approached her just before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – a three-day weekend – and asked where he was going to get his next meal from since he wouldn’t be back at school until Tuesday.

“That was really traumatizing for me,” Field said, “that he was worried about how he was going to eat when school is closed.”

Food insecurity – defined by the USDA as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food” – is a problem that plagues households across the U.S. In 2020, some 10.5 percent of American households experienced food insecurity at some point during the year. And in Colorado, according to Feeding America, as many as one in nine Colorado children are facing hunger.

“This is real,” Jenet said. “This is happening now, and it is happening to more children than we could possibly know about.”

Children who aren’t getting enough to eat – or enough nutrition out of their meals – struggle to concentrate in school, and their academic performance can suffer. Hunger can also take a toll not only on children’s physical health but on their mental health as well, advocates say.

Miranda Genova, a school counselor and former teacher at Pueblo City Schools, said, “A healthy diet is protective, and your brain functions best when it’s getting premium fuel.”

In addition to nutritional issues, children from low-income families face incredible amounts of stigma from their schoolmates at mealtimes. Peers notice who can’t afford their meals and who eats different foods from everyone else. Jenet recounted the story of a girl who testified that she hid in a bathroom at lunchtime out of embarrassment because she didn’t have money for food.

Pettersen said she can personally relate to this issue because her family went through periods of financial hardship, and she relied on getting meals at school during those times.

 “I remember what it was like to feel the shame,” said Pettersen. “I went to the end [of the line] so nobody saw that they had to check me off the list because I was unable to pay for that.”

The new proposed bill arrives several months after COVID-era food aid programs ended. The nutritional provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which greatly expanded access to school lunches for families across the country, expired on Sep. 30.

Under the Healthy School Meals for All act, public schools would receive reimbursement for providing free meals to students who don’t already qualify for free or reduced-price meals under an existing federal school meal program (such as the National School Lunch Program). These meals would be required to meet USDA nutritional guidelines.

In addition, if a participating school creates a parent-student advisory committee to oversee the purchasing of foods, the school becomes eligible for grant money to purchase locally produced foods, which would help support Colorado farmers and ranchers. It could also slightly reduce schools’ carbon footprint.

Roberto Meza, a farmer and co-founder of the East Denver Food Hub, stressed that supporting local agriculture plays a crucial role not only in providing healthy foods to Colorado kids but also in efforts to promote food justice.

“Healthy meals require healthy soils,” said Meza. “If we’re trying to address equity in our schools and in our communities, we also have to do that in our fields and in the farm worker spaces that are so critical to providing these meals for students.”

Marc Jacobson, CEO of Hunger Free Colorado, emphasized that supporters of the bill were working to secure federal funding for the program. Some of this funding could come through the Build Back Better Act, if it passes in the Senate. Jacobson estimates that the additional cost for Colorado could be between $75 and $105 million, but that the expense would be “doable” and also “needed.”

“This shouldn’t be a question,” said Gonzales-Gutierrez. “We’re talking about a basic necessity that our kids need. They need food.”