Starting this fall, about half of all Washington public school students will have to pay for school meals for the first time in more than two years. That’s because federal lawmakers did not extend a pandemic-era reimbursement program for schools nationwide that provide free breakfast and lunch.
Schools had been providing free meals since the beginning of the pandemic, and many students are likely used to it. Advocates say the program narrowed the hunger gap for kids in the U.S.
“Even though this is a return to normal, we have probably kids in the system that have never experienced ‘normal,’” said Leanne Eko, director of child nutrition services at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Two years is also kind of a long time to remember how that all works.”
Largely thanks to state school meals legislation, Washington is better at providing free meals to K-12 students today than it was a few years ago.
Still, state officials, child welfare advocates, parents and legislators are wary that the shift in federal policy will reintroduce barriers to free meals, including the stigma of eating a free school breakfast or parent concerns about sharing household income on the application for free and reduced-price meals.
Washington state’s K-12 students will join the rest of the country in experiencing the policy shift — with California being the only exception. There, a new state law puts free breakfast and lunch in front of all its K-12 students, regardless of their family’s income level.
In Washington, Eko estimated about half of the state’s 1 million public school students will continue to receive free meals because their schools or districts are part of the federal Community Eligibility Provision program offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Eko said her office has encouraged districts to let families know if meals will remain free. In King County, four out of 18 school districts will continue having free meals districtwide: Highline, Auburn, Federal Way and Tukwila. Within the 14 other districts, individual schools may also be eligible for the CEP meals program.
The federal government reimburses all meals that schools and school districts provide as long as 62.5% of their students are identified as low-income or at risk of hunger. But according to the federal rules, even schools with a lower number can get a partial reimbursement, provided that more than 40% of their students are identified as low-income or at risk of hunger.
In March, the state Legislature made the program still more generous. It passed HB 1878, which covers any additional funding needed to ensure that schools whose eligible populations fall below the 62.5% threshold, but above the 40% threshold, are fully reimbursed for meals.
Covering supplemental funding for schools and school districts in the CEP program will cost the state $48 million for the upcoming school year, said Mikhail Cherniske, an administrative program specialist with OSPI.
Cherniske called the growth in the number of schools that qualify for free lunches an “exciting development,” but said it pushed the cost beyond initial estimates. The state will request supplemental funding in the upcoming legislative session so that it can continue to provide universal meals to as many students as possible.
State Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, who wrote HB 1878, was behind 2020 legislation that laid the groundwork for school meals legislation and required schools to join the CEP meals program, if eligible. Since 2020, the number of Washington schools in the USDA’s CEP free meal program rose by about 54%, according to OSPI data.
Riccelli said the legislation is a boost for middle-class families who may be struggling with the pandemic, and for anyone who may not qualify for free and reduced price meals at schools.
A Seattle family of four qualifies for free or reduced-price meals if they make $51,338 or less. A household of five with over $60,070 in annual income would not qualify for free or reduced price meals.
Riccelli thinks federal lawmakers should have kept school meals free for another year.
“I’m disappointed that they were not able to get this extended one more year as we see people struggling with inflation — with high cost of living,” Riccelli said. “This is just one more burden that they could have taken off the table.”
He added that before the pandemic, he remembers hearing about families in Spokane, his hometown, getting calls from school offices about school meal debt they couldn’t pay.
“Imagine getting a call for lunch debt and you know you don’t have the money,” Riccelli said.
No stigma when all meals are free
Christina Wong, the public policy and advocacy director at statewide food bank Northwest Harvest, said the great thing about the free meals available to everyone over the last two years is that no student was singled out for being low-income or needing a school meal.
That won’t continue at schools that no longer provide free meals to all students, she said.
“I heard from a single mom … she was saying how even though her kids had qualified for free meals before the pandemic had started, they felt, frankly, stigmatized about accessing free meals,” Wong said.
The cost of school meals for those who’d have to pay full price depends on the meal and the school. In Seattle Public Schools, breakfast and lunch range from $2.25 to $3.50. Over the course of a 180-day school year, that’s between $405 and $630 per student per meal. Those sums can be a challenge for those barely making ends meet.
“It can make a difference for people when they’re living paycheck to paycheck to be able to make the rent, to be able to pay the utility bills to keep the lights on,” Wong said.
Although some schools have online application forms for free and reduced price meals, the form is still typically printed out and sent home with kids. Making sure the form gets from students’ backpacks into parents’ hands is just half the journey, Wong said.
“Not only does it have to make it back to school, but the school has to transcribe the handwritten information in order to establish eligibility,” Wong said. “A lot is riding on a single piece of paper.”
At Beacon Hill International School, one of about 54 schools in Seattle that will not continue providing free meals to all its students, only 21% of students are identified as low-income, according to OSPI — lower than the 40% needed for the school to qualify for the meals program.
Parent Robb Valentine has a child attending the school and plans to fill out the form required to determine eligibility for free and reduced-price meals. But he worries the form is a barrier to access and that some kids will fall through the cracks — even if they need school meals.
Valentine added that some people, including those living in the U.S. without legal permission, may be hesitant to fill out a form asking for personal information.
“There’s a lot around the whole application,” Valentine said. “A lot of people have mixed feelings about it.”
That’s why educating parents and dispelling myths about the form are needed to increase trust and willingness, and Rebecca Chase-Chen, a teacher at Beacon Hill International School, said that can be done with the right staff who can help parents navigate the system.
“That means you have to find people with the language skills and the money to compensate them to do that — to sit and fill this out and to do the education around what this means,” Chase-Chen said.