Free school meals bill introduced in WA state house

Jan 17, 2023, 10:04 AM | Updated: 10:26 am
free school meals...
(AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
(AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

A bill to provide free school meals to all students in Washington state who request one is being debated in Olympia.

The legislation, “Washington Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act,” was introduced last week by Sen. T’wina Nobles (D-Fircrest) and Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane). It would require all schools to provide free breakfast and lunch and would define school meals as part of basic education.

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“Access to nutritious food is a key component to the health and well-being of children,” said Riccelli. “Hungry kids can’t learn, and by providing meals to any student who wants one, we’re taking an effective and meaningful step toward ensuring that children won’t go hungry in our schools.”

Schools would be required to provide free breakfast and lunches to any student who requests one, which the bill’s sponsors say will help remove social stigmas around existing programs by extending the same option to all 1.1 million students equally.

State Superintendent Chris Reykdal talked last year about pushing the state legislature to create a free school meal program requesting an additional $86 million dollars a year in funding as a step towards providing universal school meals to all Washington students.

If approved, the funding will be able to provide 21.5 million more lunches and 500,000 more breakfasts to the 330,000 K-12 students that experience hunger but whose families do not qualify for food assistance under current guidelines.

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.

“Student success cannot be limited by a family’s ability to afford food. To advance students’ chances at success, we need to make investments, especially into their most basic needs,” said Nobles. “As a mom and a former educator, I know hunger can be a barrier to education, and students can’t learn when they’re hungry. This legislation will ensure that our students’ attention will be on their education and not on where their next meal is coming from.”

Legislators have been improving Washington’s school breakfast and lunch program over the last decade by passing Breakfast After the Bell in 2018 (HB 1508), requiring more schools to participate in the USDA Community Eligibility Program (CEP) in 2020 (HB 2660), and providing funding to more schools required to participate in CEP as recently as 2022 (HB 1878).

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Free school meals bill introduced in WA state house