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Free school meal bills

Two bills seek to make school meals free to all students

SB 5964 and HB 2058 are on the move

During the pandemic, school districts around the state offered free meals to all students, whether or not they were eligible for school meals based on their family’s low-income status. Up to that point, free meals were provided only to kids from families with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty level, while those from families between 130% and 185% of the poverty level were eligible for reduced-cost meals.

Access to free school meals to all students during the pandemic helped tens of thousands of families across Washington who would not have been eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch to meet their kids’ nutritional needs.  

“No child should go hungry or face stigma for not being able to afford meals at school,” said Dr. Stephan Blanford, Executive Director of the statewide Children’s Alliance. “We know that children need nutritious food and full bellies to grow, learn, and thrive. But current programs that offer free school meals include restrictions that prevent many schools from participating.”

A superintendent’s goal: universal free meals

This year, Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has returned to the state legislature and is again asking lawmakers to commit to feeding all students for free. The office has requested funding that would allow all elementary schools in the state to provide free meals to all kids regardless of family income. It’s a first step toward school Superintendent Chris Reykdal’s goal of no-cost meals for every student from Kindergarten through high school graduation.  

Reykdal hoped lawmakers would approve that plan during last year’s legislative session. Instead, they approved free meals for all students in schools serving kids in Kindergarten through grade 4, in schools where 30% or more of enrolled students meet federal eligibility requirements for free or reduced-price lunches. 

Still, Reykdal called the move a step in the right direction.

Two bills aimed at the dream

Currently, there are two bills in motion in the 2024 session of the legislature that get Washington closer to Reydal’s dream of universal no-cost school meals: 

  • Senate Bill 5964 (SB 5964), for which the Senate Committee on Early Learning & K-12 Education held a public hearing this week.
  • House Bill 2058 (HB 2058) was approved by the House Committee on Education earlier this month and referred to the House Appropriations Committee, which must approve proposals that carry a price tag.

What the bills would do

If either SB 5964 or HB 2058 become law, they would require free breakfasts and lunches to be offered to all public school students, requesting them beginning with the 2024-25 school year unless OSPI has exempted a school. Passage of either bill would put Washington in league with  California and Minnesota. These two states have continued to offer free meals to all public school students since federal pandemic-related meals for all waivers expired in 2022.

The Senate bill and its House companion “would bring us one step closer to providing all of our kids with the food they need at school and help address the racial inequality present in student’s access to nutrition,” says Blanford.

Testimony heard in Senate committee this week

During a Senate committee hearing on SB594, bill sponsor T’wina Nobles (D-Fircrest) called school meals “a crucial lifeline for families.”

“As a mom and a former educator, I know hunger can be a barrier to education, and students all across our state can’t learn when they are hungry,” Nobles said. “Despite progress in recent years, 337,000 students across the state are still required to pay for school meals. Income eligibility is $55,000 a year for a household of four. This means parents making minimum wage and Washington would be ineligible for free meals. And right now, the cost of school meals for a family with two kids in middle school is $260 a month.” Nobles also said the bill would remove the shame many kids feel when other students know they receive a free lunch due to their family’s low-income status.

Many supporters of the Senate bill were on hand during its hearing on Monday, including the state PTSA, members of the Washington Education Association, teachers, and students.

“In my own community foods, food insecurity is a pervasive issue, affecting many students’ ability to focus and succeed academically, “said Rahul Sharma, a senior at Lakeside School and representative of the Youth Advisory Council of Washington. “I’ve seen friends skip meals and not by choice, but because they couldn’t afford them. Senate Bill 5964 addresses this head-on, ensuring that no student in Washington has to learn on an empty stomach.” Sharma urged the committee to” take a firm stand against hunger and educational inequality.” 

Mill Creek mom and Bellevue school district teacher Michal Frisen supported the bill: “The cost of living in Bellevue has skyrocketed, and many families are struggling to keep up,” Frisen told lawmakers. “Even my husband and I, two teachers who commute a long distance to our jobs due to the cost of living in Bellevue, would benefit from the support, convenience, and time saved knowing that our own children could have free school meals.”

The opposition speaks out

Those who spoke in opposition to the legislation stressed that Washington cannot afford to, and should not, feed kids of well-off parents. They also questioned whether needy kids were really falling through the cracks of program eligibility, as several supporters charged.

“This notion that free and reduced program is missing the needy kids is ridiculous,” said Nicole Wells, a former school district food services director. “The state does not have the money, nor should the taxpayer have to fund free lunches for families that can afford to be responsible. The bigger problem is parents who refuse to fill out income questionnaires. The current program is wholly adequate to help families.”

Washington resident Sharon Damoff called the plan a form of socialism.

“We should not be sending the message to parents that they do not need to take care of their kids,” Damoff told lawmakers. “And we should not teach kids the mindset that the school and the state should provide everything. We should not be conditioning kids to think that that is how society works because we want them to have a functioning society when they grow up.” 

State AAP chapter chimes in: ‘ Hunger impedes learning

A representative of the Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics also spoke in support of the Senate bill. This week, the organization sent out an email calling food insecurity a pressing concern in Washington state, where one-third of households with children faced low food security in 2022-2023. 

“Our state has demonstrated a strong commitment to ensuring all children have access to healthy food by providing free school meals for all students in all K-5 and K-8 buildings where at least 30% of the student population are receiving free and reduced lunch, yet too many families continue to struggle with food insecurity, with children of color experiencing disproportionately high rates of hunger,” the local chapter email said. “Evidence clearly shows that hunger impedes learning. When we address hunger, kids are healthier, perform better in school, and demonstrate better behavior and mental health.” 

What’s next

If the Senate Committee on Early Learning & K-12 Education passes the bill out of committee, SB 5964 will move on to the Senate Ways & Means Committee, which must approve any bills with a state financial commitment.

Take Action

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About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for NestingInstinctsSeattle.com and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at Compasswriters.com.