Paige Thompson Elementary School first-graders Hensley Hetzler, left, Salina Lovenberg, center, and August Hogue, right, taste fresh, locally grown cantaloupe during lunch Tuesday at the school in West Loveland. Last year, Colorado voters approved a free breakfast and lunch program for all students, called Healthy School Meals for All, which also seeks to incorporate more locally grown food into school lunches. (Jenny Sparks/Loveland Reporter-Herald)

Last year, Colorado voters approved HB22-1414, which created the Healthy School Meals for All program, which took effect this year.

Killian Daniels, center, eats a Colorado peach while he and Oliver Leddy, right, both second-graders at Paige Thompson Elementary School, eat lunch in the cafeteria with classmates on Tuesday. (Jenny Sparks/Loveland Reporter-Herald)

Sarah Tomsic, farm-to-school culinary and sustainability specialist in the Thompson School District, who began her role this year, hopes to use it to help bring more nutritious, locally produced, made-from-scratch lunches to district cafeterias.

Tomsek spent Tuesday morning handing out samples of various cantaloupe preparations, such as cantaloupe squares decorated with basil and lemon and agua fresca cantaloupes. She allowed the students to try each one after they finished eating their lunches, and asked them to vote on their favorites by placing the beans in the jars.

“We support our local farmers and our local economy,” she said amid a rush of students jostling for some sample cups. “Food doesn’t have to travel far, so it’s fresher, full of vitamins, and more delicious.”

Zero-scratch cooking is also a priority for Tomsic.

“With zero-sum cooking, you have complete control over your ingredients,” Tomsik said. “So you know exactly what’s in everything, nothing gross, no ingredients you can’t pronounce. It’s just a cleaner way to cook for kids. And the quality is better.”

The Healthy School Meals for All program provides grants to school districts seeking to purchase locally grown foods, in addition to providing free breakfast and lunch to all students, and provides financial or stipend assistance to school districts seeking to increase the wages of cafeteria staff.

The program is funded by increased taxes on people who earn more than $300,000 annually, and its cost is estimated at about $100 million annually.

This number is not as high as it may seem, as many students had already received free or reduced lunch before the bill passed. In the 2021-22 school year, 37% of Colorado K-12 students were receiving some type of financial assistance to pay for lunch, according to Colorado Department of Education data. A quarter of students in the Thompson School District were receiving free or reduced lunch that year.

The old program was based on income eligibility and, according to Tomsik, was often embarrassing for students.

“Now the kids who got ‘paid’ lunch eat with us, so they don’t have the stigma of, ‘You have to be free, or you have to be discounted,'” she said.

The program has led to a significant increase in demand for school lunches, which can be a challenge, Tomsic said.

“Every one of these kids gets free breakfast and lunch,” she said, looking at the cafeteria filled with kindergarten and first-grade students. “So the amount of food we produce every day has increased dramatically.”

Cafeterias, especially in older buildings in the district, are often small, designed to produce meals for only a small portion of the student body, so obtaining enough equipment to increase production can be difficult, she said.

In addition, preparing healthy food from scratch is more difficult and time consuming.

But training and seminars with staff, as well as experiences like Tuesday’s cantaloupe taste test, can make staff more prepared and students more open to trying new things.

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