Free school meals approved in Colorado, Thompson officials worry about surge in demand – Loveland Reporter-Herald

Colorado voters approved Proposition FF, which uses state funds to provide free meals to schoolchildren across the state, in last month’s midterm elections.

But Thompson School District officials are worried about being able to meet the spike in demand.

LOVELAND, CO - NOVEMBER 29, 2022: Rylan Thompson, front, and Lara Lenhart, rear, walk through the midday line at Ponderosa Elementary School in north Loveland on Tuesday, November 29, 2022.  (Jenny Sparks/Loveland Reporter-Herald)
Rylan Thompson (front) and Lara Lenhart (back) walk through lunchtime on Tuesday, November 29, 2022 at Ponderosa Elementary School in north Loveland. (Jenny Sparks/Loveland Reporter-Herald)

Historically, meals have been paid for by families, excluding low-income households, who qualify for the nationwide free and discounted lunch program, but efforts to contain the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic have included funding for free lunches in the whole country.

That funding expired in July of this year and was not renewed despite pushes by some in Congress, meaning households once again sent students to school on meal allowances or scramble to apply for free and discounted lunches.

The program focused on the number of children who were underfed; During the pandemic, district food service staff served about 2,000 more meals a day than before the program, according to Lisa Kendall, director of district food service at the Thompson School.

That increase, however, put a strain on the district’s capacity, especially amid labor shortages and supply chain backstops that plagued the nation in the wake of the pandemic.

Kendall said she expects a similar surge in demand for school lunches and that conditions that have made it difficult to serve them during the pandemic have not gone away.

Because many school canteens were built during periods of lower demand for school lunches, many kitchens just aren’t big enough to serve that many meals efficiently, Kendall said.

“You can’t just start tearing down walls to build a bigger kitchen,” she said. “These things take time and money and planning. But above all money.”

Some new equipment was provided through a 2018 district bond, and the proposed vote includes wording that would increase wages for school lunch workers, but she still worries the district will struggle to cook that many more meals a day.

As a result, she said, the district’s efforts to cook more from scratch, as well as the speed and efficiency with which it can serve the 12,000 to 14,000 meals it prepares daily, could suffer.

During the pandemic, more pre-packaged foods were used to feed students, which, while still nutritious, was sometimes less appealing to students. Making an effort to make meals appetizing is a goal of nutritional services staff, Kendall said.

“It’s not about steak and lobster, of course, but we want to serve the best possible meals that are both nutritious and delicious,” she said. “Children will not get food if they don’t eat the food.”

Proposition FF is funded by reducing tax deductions for earners earning more than $300,000, or about 5% of the state’s taxpayers.

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