JOHN CURLEY AND SHARI ELLIKER
‘Millions of federal dollars on the table’ for universal school meals
Two pieces of legislation are advancing in the Washington state Legislature this week that would help provide meals to every student in the state at zero cost.
HB 1238 and SB 5339 passed through their respective education committees recently – the former on Feb. 7 and the latter on Jan. 30 – and would implement a universal school meal program in the state.
Free school meals bill introduced in WA state house
HB 1238 would include $86 million a year in funding for school meal programs.
The money 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.
Schools would be required to provide free breakfast and lunches to any student who requests one, which the bill’s sponsors said will help remove social stigmas around existing programs by extending the same option to all 1.1 million students equally.
Removing this kind of stigma is an important reason the bill ensures universal meals for all students, State Rep. Marcus Riccelli said during an interview with John Curley and Shari Elliker.
“I think there’s lunch shaming involved, we have a long process of going back where we have folks who didn’t have nutritious meals, and we said, ‘hey, here’s your free and reduced lunch.’ And that caused all kinds of issues in lunch-shaming kids,” Riccelli said. “But I think the other thing is that we know through the pandemic, the feds did the Summer Meals Program year-round, and we saw childhood hunger reduced significantly.”
“So you want the people of Minnesota or Ohio or Pennsylvania to feed the kids of Washington?” Curley asked.
“Those are our tax dollars that go back to D.C., so I’m all supportive of making sure we get every single dollar back here to Washington state, I do not have any problem with that,” Riccelli responded.
Riccelli argues that this legislation is an investment into the economy by helping to relieve the burden of parents paying for meals for students through money already paid to the federal government.
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“I also think this is a tax credit for working families. When we look at it, inflation is hitting folks and more and more people, you know, as it hits the pocketbooks are struggling with, you know, even getting their kids that healthy meal,” Riccelli said. “So let’s make sure they got it. We were leaving millions of federal dollars on the table at times by not taking advantage of the Community Eligibility program, and let’s just let’s close the gap here.”
The funding expansion does more than just provide opportunities for students to get food; it would also free up system administrators from having to track down school lunch debt.
“If you provide universal meals, then you don’t have somebody in the front office calling parents about lunch debt, you don’t have a plan that you have to administer. You just every student gets. And we saw that work for two years, with the Summer Meals Program going during COVID,” Riccelli said.
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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