Feed-good bill for public schools 

District 11 stands among those worried about how to fulfill legislative promise

Few bills in the Colorado Legislature these days erase party lines. But House Bill 1006, known as "Breakfast After the Bell" (BAB), is powerfully appealing.

The premise is simple: Schools with lots of poor children must feed all students a free breakfast during regular hours. Serving the meal "after the bell," instead of before the school day begins, has been shown to drastically increase participation, and eating a healthy breakfast helps children focus in the classroom.

"It's for feeding hungry kids that are sitting in class, and not learning because they are hungry," says Rep. Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs, a co-sponsor.

The timing seems perfect. In Colorado, 22 percent of children now live in food-insecure homes — an 86 percent increase from 2002, according to Hunger Free Colorado, the Centennial nonprofit that provided expert consultation on the bill. With a few exceptions, HB1006 will mandate BAB in schools in which at least 80 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced lunch, starting in the 2014-15 school year. In 2015-16, the program will expand to include all schools at 70 percent and higher.

But despite the feel-good nature of the bill, which has already passed the House and is jogging through the Senate, some school district representatives say they can't afford to stand behind the bill. That's because HB1006 includes no additional funding for schools.

Rick Hughes, director of Food and Nutrition Services in Colorado Springs School District 11, says the Legislature should either amend the bill so it applies to fewer schools, or cough up a few million.

"We want to serve children; we want to serve the hungry," he says. "... but we have to have some way to pay for it."

Lee Wheeler-Berliner, deputy director of Hunger Free Colorado, argues that schools should be able to afford the program. Generally, he says, schools are only reimbursed for the few low-income kids that actually eat breakfast at school; BAB dramatically increases participation, and that bumps the federal and state reimbursements. The nonprofit, which also notes that small grants are available, says the extra cash should cover the increased costs.

Hughes, however, argues that's only true in schools with very high percentages of poor children. D-11 has eight schools in which only 70 to 80 percent of kids are on free and reduced lunch. Those schools will get less reimbursement money, but will have the same up-front costs.

Hughes estimates that in 2015-16, he'll spend an extra $230,000 district-wide on Breakfast After the Bell, because schools will need increased transportation, food storage, cooking equipment, food and supplies. The cost every year after that will be about $50,000, plus inflation.

He says other districts are facing similar issues, and adds that he's reached out to the Legislature and to Hunger Free Colorado about the real costs of the program, but has been rebuffed. (Hunger Free Colorado executive director Kathy Underhill says she has considered such comments, but stands by the organization's calculations.)

If the program is approved, D-11 may have to cut other programs, or charge kids who aren't on assistance more for lunch. Hughes, who brought free-range meat and local produce to D-11, says he won't cut the quality of his meals.

"I refuse to take shortcuts and serve highly-processed foods to our kids," he says. "That's just not an option for us, but it will happen in other districts ... I think it's devastating for our state."



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