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Full Stomachs and Full Minds Give Children a Better Chance at Success: The Real Costs of Funding Early Education and Lunch Programs

Full Stomachs and Full Minds Give Children a Better Chance at Success: The Real Costs of Funding Early Education and Lunch Programs


The cost of not providing free school lunch and preschool is letting our children fall behind and perpetuating structural biases.

Unseen factors in education

One of the most basic ways to evaluate a society is to see what care they provide for their children. The United States as a whole does not provide much of a comprehensive plan. Your mileage may vary when it comes to public and private resources provided by the government, or even in the ability to access them due to socioeconomic and racial factors. While there has been a national proposal to provide a more comprehensive range of early childhood support, currently any bill of that scale getting through Congress will be nearly impossible due to the partisan split.

Fortunately, school lunch fees in Colorado have been done away with, ensuring children have access to a free healthy lunch option. Additionally, preschool is now free for families in tighter economic situations. “There’s such dramatic inflation — for food costs for all basic necessities. This is something that’s going to help families living with low income to not have to make that decision anymore — do I buy food for my kids and my family or do I pay the energy bill?” explained Lorena Garcia, Colorado state representative and executive director on the board of the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition.

Access to healthy meals despite socioeconomic status helps equalize the playing field in terms of structural disadvantages many children are burdened with. These disadvantages are not always obvious. Your own family may know the pain of deciding where limited funds go, and if not you, your neighbors, friends, and coworkers may also be silently struggling to ensure they have the ability to provide their children with the best possible life. One of the main barriers preventing more kids from attending preschool is simply the cost. Wealthier families have more resources to draw from where parents from more difficult economic situations have to decide what to budget for. Wealthier children who start preschool earlier are more likely to achieve academic success in their early education which can open up doors to opportunities not afforded to all.

Access to healthy meals despite socioeconomic status helps equalize the playing field in terms of structural disadvantages many children are burdened with.

The benefits to kids are not limited to test scores. The Brookings Institute reviewed academic literature on the subject and determined that attending preschool results in “a reduced need for special education at a later age, and less crime.” It is not just the children who benefit from these programs. Parents no longer have to pay for childcare or preschool, which makes the financial decision to start your child early even easier. Having a child in preschool helps parents return to work sooner, find a part-time job, attend classes, or focus on caring for other siblings or family members if needed. Teachers benefit from students having an earlier start to their education. Research conducted by Penn State University shows that reading and math scores are higher for children who are able to attend preschool.

Colorado voters recently took action to provide more funding for parents and kids with a pair of new propositions. Proposition FF increases the amount of taxable income individuals making over $300,000 a year can deduct and uses that money to fund food for children in school. Proposition EE also passed with flying colors. This proposition raises the taxes on nicotine revenue to cover the costs of preschool for qualifying families. Preschool is now provided for free for most four-year-olds and many three-year-olds whose families fall in certain income brackets. The benefits that food security and an early start provide to every child — but especially those who may need the extra help — are invaluable.

Those who claim the U.S. is No. 1, the best country across the globe, need to back up that claim by caring for our children as if we really were the top nation. There is no need for one of the wealthiest societies to struggle with early childcare, feeding young students, and providing support networks and funds for new parents. Sweden, considered by some to have one of the most comprehensive support systems for new parents and families, offers up to 480 days of paid leave to care for newborn children. They also provide free meals for all students nationwide. Colorado is making strides, but nationwide we still lag behind.

Those who claim the U.S. is No. 1, the best country across the globe, need to back up that claim by caring for our children as if we really were the top nation.

Early childcare, education, and food programs should not have a partisan divide to them. There is virtually no downside to funding programs that provide free meals and free preschool. Equitable Growth presents data that posits these types of programs will pay for themselves through “increased wages and earnings of workers and reduced costs to individuals from better health, less crime, and fewer incidences of child abuse and neglect.”

Funding early childhood programs is a way to reduce crime in the long run. When asked where our tax dollars are going if not to children, Garcia expands, we’re “spending it on the Department of Corrections, so instead of actual preventative measures, all we’re doing is reacting.” Incarceration is not working to prevent crime. The U.S. has the highest prison population in the world by percentage of the population. Conversations about crime need to also include more funding for our children, or we run the risk of only applying corrective measures after the fact, not preventive measures to reduce crime in the first place.

Instead of asking why something like car theft is happening, we need to take a new approach and ask why are there car thieves in the first place? The conversation needs to shift from reactive steps — like incarceration — to preventive programs like free meals, quality education, and free preschool.

Starting early with solid nutrition, free preschool, and Head Start programs can be one way to combat structural racism and institutional bias that hinder so many. The Brookings Institute study referenced earlier also provides additional information on early childhood education and informs us that “the keys to academic success for disadvantaged children may not be smaller class sizes, better-prepared teachers, tougher standards, more accountability, or greater choice — laudable as these goals may be. They may instead hinge on a single factor: preschool.” One of the main deterrents against parents sending their children to preschool is the cost, yet the benefits are enormous. Providing this care allows both children and their parents, and Colorado as a whole, a higher chance of success.

Access to resources like meals and preschool does not guarantee an individual child’s success, but it does ensure the odds of more and more children succeeding. More children will be nutritionally fulfilled than if these programs are not provided. Is there a better use of tax resources than helping the youngest and most vulnerable of us — our children — eat healthfully and set off on a path that provides them with the best options in society?

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Some children left behind

The true cost of not funding programs like these — ones that help equalize the playing field and bolster achievement across the board — is leaving behind our children. They deserve better. Our current way of doing things by relying on private organizations and generous donations to fill in the gaps in public programs creates inequality and perpetuates the very structural racism that so many are fighting against. The idea that less government is better because charity and religion will fulfill the needs of our most vulnerable has been demonstrably proven false by decades of observation in this nation. Ideals and platitudes of “smaller government” should not apply when it comes to providing the most basic of necessities for children.

Studies have consistently shown that the advantages and benefits provided to higher-income youths are one of the early forms of structural bias. Despite the desire or motivation, some families just do not have access to resources that could help set their children up for long-term success. One additional way that Colorado voters are working towards a more equitable future is to provide free programs for lower income families.

Even with great intentions, the unfortunate reality is that many programs designed to help children in need do not reach their intended audience. Garcia explains that “a lot of it has to do with wealthier families having the privilege of being able to take the time to learn about these things on their own.” Language barriers, transportation costs, having time to fill out forms, and unequal access to media can cause well-intentioned programs to continue to perpetuate the status quo instead of working to fight it.

Even with great intentions, the unfortunate reality is that many programs designed to help children in need do not reach their intended audience.

“It’s important that we always have on the forefront that we have rural districts and our mountain districts,” Garcia reminds us. Low-income households are provided with additional resources to help their kids overcome some of the challenges presented by society as a whole, but word of these programs and ease of access must also play a role in determining how to implement them.

It is not often that we can see those unseen hands of built-in structural inequality. It is even more rare when we have a direct opportunity to create new paths. Colorado providing free preschool and free school lunches helps ensure our children do not fall through the cracks of public school, private organizations, and personal finances.

In the long run, however, combatting structural racism and institutional factors will require more than funding preschool and providing free meals. “In order to tear down structural racism, you have to tear down structures,” Garcia emphasizes, “how about fixing our society so [parents] are not having to work two to three jobs a day?”

Resources for Colorado families

The benefits of food security and an early education are enormous, but what resources are actually available for new parents, young children, and marginalized families in Colorado? Chalkbeat Colorado reports that “more than 250 preschool providers offering 12,000 seats” are available to Coloradoans across the state who wish to participate in the new statewide program. There are also several organizations that specifically provide help and resources to parents. Utilizing parental resources, having access to free preschool, and being served a healthy lunch can all work in tandem to benefit our kids.

Colorado Co-Parenting Class provides support and resources for parents and children going through a divorce. Parents splitting up can be traumatic and challenging for both the adults and the children, but there is no need to go at it alone. Numerous families have decided it is best to end their marriage but continue to co-parent. The Divorce Workbook provided by mental health professionals is a powerful resource that has been developed with over 25 years of experience. From communication strategies to navigating stepparents to childhood behavioral problems, help mitigate the negative mental health aspects of divorce with this program.

Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition exists to help recognize and combat structural racism and institutional bias that affects so many children. The unfortunate fact of our society’s structure is that racism, classism, and differing access to resources starts from birth. Fighting for every advantage for your child involves not only individual achievement and effort but recognizing outside factors that also come into play when talking about student success. Founded after observing the real effects of racism that Latino students had to deal with, the organization has been going strong since 1980 helping Colorado families.

Chalkbeat Colorado reports on all things educational in the state of Colorado. From tax codes to immigration reform to gun violence, there are numerous factors that play into how our children experience education. Chalkbeat helps parents, students, and educators stay informed. Now more than ever the power of real reporting stands out. Browsing their articles is a good starting point to understand the structural factors like taxes and infrastructure that play crucial roles in each child’s school and therefore their development as well as stay up-to-date on statewide education programs and related bills.

Illuminate Colorado provides home visits to new mothers. They provide advice, share techniques, and create a safe and nurturing space for the new mom to exist, unwind, or learn. Reviews point towards the self-care and health routines that go out the window when a newborn enters the picture. In the true vein of “it takes a village” sometimes a new parent needs some time to still exist as an independent person while also ensuring that their infant is taken care of in the best way possible. Postpartum depression is not talked about as much as it should be. Illuminate Colorado can help new mothers work through this mental health aspect. Importantly, it is not just first-time parents that request the service. Many with a second child or families that have adopted have reported the benefits of things like nurse visits, another set of hands, or a much needed break.

Health First Colorado is Colorado’s affordable health insurance provider, just rebranded. They provide access to physical as well as mental health specialists. Additionally, children 18 and younger as well as pregnant moms do not have copays to visit a healthcare provider. This helps ensure that cost is not a factor in seeking medical care and treatment.

211 Colorado is a number that anyone across the state can call to find access to resources and programs related to mental health, housing, and child care. For new and expecting parents, they provide specific information and home visits to help educate and prepare for a bright future. Safe sleep information to help prevent infant mortality and early childhood mental health options are some of the varied resources 211 can help connect with for those in need.

Colorado Shines Choosing childcare providers and support options can be daunting. Every parent wants to ensure their child receives the best care possible from their providers, one that is not only highly rated but custom suited for their particular needs. Colorado Shines reviews childcare options statewide to provide parents and guardians with the most up-to-date information. They will also help walk you through the range of care options including home visits.


Austin Clinkenbeard
Austin Clinkenbeard has been traveling the world with his wife for the past several years exploring food, history and culture along the way. He is a passionate advocate for stronger social science education and informed global travel. Austin holds degrees in Anthropology and Political Science from San Diego State. When he’s home there’s a good chance you can catch him cooking allergy friendly food. You can follow along Austin’s travel adventures and food allergy journey at www.NowWeExplore.com.

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