DENVER (AP) –School nutritionists were cheering outside the Colorado Senate on Wednesday after lawmakers restored money for free breakfasts for needy children.
A Senate committee voted unanimously to change course and restore some $124,000 needed by the Department of Education for the Start Smart Nutrition Program for the final weeks of this school year.
Last month another budget-writing committee decided against the additional money, prompting howls of protest that lawmakers were hitting up needy children to help balance the budget.
“The working poor are really struggling, and they need help feeding their children,” said Mona Martinez-Brosh, director of nutrition services for Aurora Public Schools, which serves breakfasts to about 4,900 students a day.
Statewide, the program covers about 2.3 million breakfasts a year to about 56,000 eligible children. The poorest students already receive free meals; the “Start Smart” breakfasts went to students who qualify for reduced-price meals. Those students would have had to pay 30 cents each for breakfast if the program had been cut.
“In a working poor family, they will make that choice — ‘Can I pay for my child to have breakfast, or can I pay for my child to eat lunch?”‘ said Monica Deines-Henderson, nutrition director for a public school district in Falcon, near Colorado Springs.
Senators were greeted at their desks with paper bags containing sample school breakfasts — granola bars, apples, milk and low-fat yogurt.
“It’s a valuable program. People are going through some tough times, and this is something we need to take into account,” said the Republican senator who suggested the change Wednesday in the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Keith King of Colorado Springs.
King is principal of a charter school there. He said after the vote that he was so committed to free breakfasts for about 40 students at his school that he was considering using other school funds to continue the breakfasts even if his amendment failed.
The breakfast funding switch isn’t final. The full House and Senate must sign off on a long series of spending changes called supplemental or midyear budgets, in which the “Start Smart” funding is included. The Legislature’s action won’t affect funding for breakfasts next school year.
Still, nutritionists say they’re encouraged by the vigorous public response to the proposal to cut “Start Smart” breakfasts even for a couple months.
“Breakfast is the most important meal, it’s true,” Martinez-Brosh said. “I was optimistic they’d find a way to do the right thing.”
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