A bill that would have made school meals free for all students in Washington will not meet that goal during this year’s session of the Washington State Legislature.
Still, the state lawmakers who introduced it say a scaled-down version of House Bill 1238 moves the ball forward toward the target of ensuring all kids have the fuel they need to learn.
Reducing the threshold
Instead of offering free meals to all students at a state cost of nearly $100 million, HB1238 would allow K-5 elementary schools across the state to offer free breakfasts and lunches to all students in a building if up to 30% (down from the current 40%) of students at the school meet the federal qualifications to receive a free or reduced lunch. That means nearly 590,000 elementary school students would be offered free breakfasts and lunches in the 2023-24 school year, moving up to 635,000 (58% of all students in Washington) by the 2024-25 school year.
Not far enough, but movement
“This bill doesn’t go quite as far as I’d like, but it’s a step in the right direction,” said bill sponsor Rep. Mark Riccelli (D-Spokane). “Kids aren’t going to thrive in school if they don’t have nutrition; they can’t be successful in their academic endeavors if they’re hungry.”
Under the initial bill, free school meals would have been provided to any student who requested one and it would have made Washington the third state in the nation to permanently offer “universal” school meals to all students. California and Maine Riccelli approved universal school meals after the Federal School Lunch Program ended its temporary expansion of free meals to all public K-12 students nationwide as a form of COVID-19 relief.
“I think we saw the importance of reducing childhood hunger during the pandemic,” Riccelli said.
Free meals impacts kids, families and school nutrition departments
Riccelli said there are numerous reasons to bring universal school meals to fruition in Washington. With the high costs of food, gas, and other essentials, families continue to struggle to make ends meet post-pandemic. Many parents are not hard hit financially, struggle to find a work-life balance, and getting kids fed and out the door to school is part of that challenge.
Knowing their kids will get a nutritious meal at school is a relief for families with limited income and takes the pressure out of the morning rush for all families.
“It helps a lot,” Riccelli said.
An end to lunch shaming
He and other proponents of universal school meals also stress they may eliminate “lunch shaming,” where kids who receive free meals are shamed because free meals are associated with their family’s income status.
Finally, says Riccelli, universal meals will reduce district administrative burden – staff would no longer spend time trying to get parents to settle meal debts.
Let kitchens focus on nutrition, local sourcing and taste
“Instead they can focus on good food,” he said. “Some of the bigger school districts are just reheating foods at this point. I think it is inevitable that as we do this, we bring kitchens back and professions back and the food gets better.” He says he will also push for more local food sourcing in schools.
Riccelli says he is hoping Congress will take the next step by reducing from 30% to 25% the number of students in a building who need to meet the federal low-income qualifications before the entire school student body is offered free meals.
Inch by inch
And, he says, he’ll keep working toward universal free school meals, even if it means incrementally inching up the number of kids eligible, in future sessions of the Legislature.
“I believe this is the best use of our dollars,” Riccelli said.