‘Do we really need a global pandemic to feed kids?’ Officials propose universal school meal program

Sep 8, 2022, 11:20 AM | Updated: Jan 17, 2023, 9:15 am
universal meals...
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

After teasing Gee and Ursula listeners last week with the possibility of a universal school meal program, State Superintendent Chris Reykdal has announced a proposal to the Washington State Legislature requesting an additional $86 million dollars a year in funding for school meal programs as a step towards providing universal school meals to all Washington students.

The money will be able to provide 21.5 million more lunches and 500,000 more breakfasts to the 330,000 K12 students that experience hunger but whose families do not qualify for food assistance under current guidelines.

During the course of the pandemic, the federal free school meal program through the Department of Agriculture’s Child Nutrition COVID-19 waivers provided meals to any student that needed them, no matter their family income, but that program sunset this past June after federal funding tied to pandemic emergency spending expired.

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

“Throughout the pandemic, I was asked consistently, what are we learning from the most unprecedented crisis of the last 100 years as we think forward,” Reykdal said. “Our students had the opportunity to access meals in ways they’ve never done before with the partnership of the federal government and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But so this school year, despite rising costs of living, and more employment insecurity from families, we’re unfortunately not going to be able to feed all families, because those federal waivers and flexibilities and resources are going away”

State superintendent teases WA universal school meal program

If the proposal is approved by the State Legislature, the 2023-24 school year would be the start date for the program.

Some states whose schools are offering free meals to all students include California, Vermont, and Massachusetts.

Senator T’wina Nobles, an outspoken proponent for the policy change, spoke in a news conference to how a universal program can really change the lives of students and families with reflection on her own experience raising four kids

“We were a young broke military family and many times qualified for free and reduced lunch. When there was a spike in our income, and we didn’t qualify, we sometimes qualify just for reduced and other times we didn’t qualify and had to pay for lunch.” Nobles said, “I think the inconsistency does make it challenging for families because life happens, and sometimes just a small increase in income can make it seem like there’s affordability when really this extra financial expense can really be a burden”

The funding expansion does more than just provide opportunities for students to get food, but it would also free up system administrators from having to track down school lunch debt.

“We have nutrition specialists and school districts who spend an extraordinary amount of their time tracking down meal debt,” Reykdal said. “There are places still sanctioning students and denying them access to programs and opportunities as a result of not being able to pay meal debt.”

State Representative Marcus Riccelli asked at the meeting, “Do we really need a global pandemic to ensure that we are feeding kids and that all Washington Students have access to healthy, nutritious food?”

“I think the answer is a resounding no,” Riccelli said. “We don’t need a global pandemic to feed kids. With this proposal and the work that will follow, this is an important next step to ensuring that free school meals are for all students. And it’s critical action toward meeting our collective goal of ending childhood hunger in Washington.”

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‘Do we really need a global pandemic to feed kids?’ Officials propose universal school meal program