State superintendent teases WA universal school meal program

Sep 2, 2022, 2:05 PM | Updated: 2:29 pm
(Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

In an exclusive interview on KIRO Newsradio, the ranking member of Washington’s public education system suggested that the state will soon offer a version of a free universal school lunch program.

The federal free school meal program through the Department of Agriculture’s Child Nutrition COVID-19 waivers sunset this past June after federal funding tied to pandemic emergency spending expired.

The amount of students eligible for meal waivers in Washington state is on the rise, from 43.31% of students in 2020 to 46.73% in 2021.

Previously, the main program to feed students that were food insecure came from the Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which provides a portion of federal funds to cover free meals for students in families below specific income thresholds through the school district. Individual students can also apply for the National School Lunch Program to get free or reduced meal benefits 30 days before the start of the school year if their school does not already qualify for the CEP.

The federal funding is often not enough, with some schools opting not to apply for the CEP because the money they receive does not cover the full amount of providing meals, a loss that some districts do not have the budget to afford. Of the 45.2% of schools that qualify for CEP programs in the state, only 32.3% choose to apply for the benefits.

Some Washington state lawmakers have looked to expand student access to free lunches with the passage of Washington HB 1878, which has authorized $44 million to increase the number of schools with free meal programs to more than double what existed before the pandemic. The new law also requires schools and districts to apply to CEP to offer meals to all students if more than 40% of the students qualify for food assistance.

This $44 million is built to offset the costs taken on by school districts in joining the CEP, allowing more than 400 schools to take advantage of the federal benefits which provide services to an additional 100,000 students.

Nearly 1,200 schools with 536,000 students will participate in the program, according to data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), headed by State Superintendent Chris Reykdal.

Reykdal went on the Gee and Ursula show to discuss the many new education programs the state is considering, from dual-language education to students receiving high school credit for after-school jobs, as well as the school lunch programs.

“Here’s the good news. We are one of those top five states or so in terms of the percentage of students we’re feeding. Our legislature has stepped up where Congress failed. Our Legislature has said if your community has a poverty rate of 40% or higher, we’re just going to feed everybody. We’re not going to go through all the bureaucracy of deciding who gets a meal and who doesn’t,” Reykdal said. “When we start the school year, we’ll have about 55% to 60% of our students in our state getting meals. So we’re way ahead of the national average.”

Schools that are newly receiving funds from the CEP include the Auburn School District, which announced to its families this month that it will offer universal free lunches at all schools through 2026.

All students in Auburn School District to get free meals, school supplies beginning this year

For some, though, there is still a gap.

“You’ll hear us talk about our first step is universal meals for the school year,” Reykdal added.

“We have a summer feeding program. The next step for us is to figure out how we extend that to the [fall].”

“So what does this mean for students now?” Ursula Reutin asked Reykdal.

“Are you talking about potentially feeding every student in Washington for free? Like I believe they did in the Auburn school district?” Ursula asked.

Despite pressure from the two hosts, Reykdal remained vague about any plans that the OSPI had.

“Stay tuned the next week or two, because I will unveil a plan to close the rest of the gap Gee and Ursula. We’ll talk about it,” he responded.

California recently passed the Universal Meals Program, guaranteeing all public school students in grades transitional kindergarten through 12, regardless of their parents’ income, are eligible for free breakfast and lunch starting in the 2022-23 school year.

Listen to Gee Scott and Ursula Reutin weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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State superintendent teases WA universal school meal program