Free school meals plan could head to WA legislature in 2023

OLYMPIA, WA — Washington’s 1.1 million kindergarten through 12th graders could receive free school lunches under a new proposal unveiled Thursday by Chris Reykdal, the state’s superintendent of public instruction. ‘State.

Federal waivers that were in place for the first two years of the pandemic, extending free meals to all students, ended with the new school year, leaving a few hundred thousand students ineligible, according to the Reykdal office. free or reduced-price food at school. .

“When students are hungry, their ability to learn and engage in school is affected,” Reykdal said.. “Quality food is a key element of student success and access to meals is an important element of school attendance. We need to stop expecting families to foot the bill for the resources and supports that are an integral part of the school day. »

Last year, the legislature ordered all eligible schools to participate in the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program, which provides free lunches to all students in schools where a disproportionate number of students live in poverty. Reykdal’s office said the program helped extend universal free meals to more than half of Washington’s student population, but left about 330,000 ineligible.

Reykdal’s plan calls for $86 million in annual state funding to provide free meals to remaining students. In addition to reducing financial strain for more families, the superintendent’s office said providing universal coverage cuts red tape and delays and helps reduce the stigma of students who need help. ‘assistance.

“Students know when their peers can’t afford meals at our schools,” said Zachary Glenn, 2022 graduate and former Kennewick School Board student representative. “When students are hungry, it’s harder for them to focus on school, and it also creates a clear divide in the lunch room between who can and can’t afford food. Universal Free School Meals directly addresses these issues and enables our schools to provide support to every student. »

Reykdal intends to formally submit the plan to state lawmakers and the governor for consideration in the next legislative session. If approved, universal free meals could begin as early as the 2023-24 school year. Washington would follow other states that have similar measures in place, including California, Vermont and Massachusetts.

Christy J. Olson