OLYMPIA — Washington legislators have scrapped an ambitious plan to provide free breakfast and lunch to every public school student and are instead pursuing a more modest expansion of the program: free meals for elementary school kids in the lowest-income schools.
House Democrats have considerably narrowed the bipartisan proposal, citing budget constraints, but say the legislation would still make free meals available to about 90,000 additional kids.
In total, more than 600,000 Washington kids would be eligible for free school meals, part of a yearslong, piecemeal approach to expanding access to food at schools.
While the federal government pays for meals for the lowest-income families, school officials say lots of other families still struggle with the cost of school lunch.
Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, the bill’s lead sponsor, gave a one-word answer when asked why free meals for all students was no longer on the table.
The state Office of Financial Management estimated the cost of free breakfast and lunch for all students at nearly $100 million a year. The substitute version of the legislation, working its way through the Legislature, would cost about $16 million a year.
“It skinnies it a bit to make it a little more palatable going forward, but it focuses on some of our youngest learners and our highest-poverty elementary schools,” Riccelli said. “We know that our students aren’t going to learn, grow and play and stay healthy if they don’t have the nutrition they need to thrive.”
“While I’m disappointed, I think this is another good step forward,” he said.
The original version of the bill (HB 1238), which was requested by state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal, was a model of clarity.
“Requires public schools, beginning with the 2023-24 school year, to
provide breakfast and lunch each school day to any requesting students
and at no charge,” read a summary by legislative staff.
The new version of the bill reads like a cautionary tale of paying attention to the fine print.
The bill’s title is still “Providing free school meals for all.”
But now the “for all” refers to kids in kindergarten through fourth grade at schools where at least 30% of students meet federal income eligibility requirements for free and reduced lunch.
House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said last week that the universal program was likely to be a victim of budgetary constraints.
“They’re going to have to pare that down because I don’t think this is a year that we can afford to probably go the whole way on that,” Jinkins said. “How do we make progress on it even if we’re not able to go the whole way? And that’s going to be, well, it’s highly disappointing to me and lots of people.”
Still, the new version of the bill is moving forward — it passed out of the House Appropriations Committee last week by a bipartisan 27-3 vote — and would provide free school lunch to an additional 90,000 students. It’s been placed on the House floor calendar, and is likely to pass the full House.
The federal government funds meals for the lowest-income kids and reduced-price meals for those whose families make just a little bit more.
But the thresholds to qualify are low. To get free school meals, a family of four can’t make more than about $36,000 a year in this school year. To get reduced-price meals, a family of four can’t make more than about $51,000.
That leaves thousands of Washington families, advocates say, who have to struggle to pay full price for their kids to eat breakfast and lunch at school.
“Students of all ages are asking staff for snacks, they’re borrowing money, they’re taking meals without the ability to pay, or simply just not eating at all,” said Laurie Dent, superintendent of the Sumner-Bonney Lake School District in suburban and rural Pierce County. “These students are from working families who do not qualify for free and reduced lunch, because many households in my district are just over the threshold.”
In the 2021-22 school year, the federal government, as part of its response to the COVID pandemic, provided free school meals to all students. But when Congress allowed that to expire last year, state lawmakers looked for ways to boost the number of students getting free meals.
The federal government, in addition to taking into account the individual income thresholds, will also provide funding for school meals to entire schools, or school districts, if enough families receive Medicaid or food stamps, or similar programs.
A bill passed last year requires schools that are eligible for this program, known as the Community Eligibility Provision, to participate. And it provides state funding to schools to cover any additional costs not covered by the federal government.
That more than doubled the number of schools participating. More than 540,000 Washington kids are now eligible for free lunch through the Community Eligibility Provision program.
Riccelli’s legislation, in its reduced form, would bring free meals to another 220 schools, putting more than half of Washington’s 1.1 million public school students in a school offering free meals.
Supporters argue that providing meals to every kid in a school is crucial to getting kids to actually eat the meals available to them.
When kids from low-income families are the only ones getting free or reduced lunch, school officials say they see “lunch shaming,” where kids are divided into haves and have-nots.
“What we see is, because of the stigma around that one-third of students who need access to meals, they would rather hang out with the two-thirds that do not require school meals,” said Megan de Vries, the food and nutrition director for the Edmonds School District. “So we are seeing kids skipping out on school meals.”
Dr. Shaquita Bell, senior medical director at Seattle’s Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, said about 70% of the patients she sees are food-insecure. Childhood hunger, she said, leads to health problems later in life.
“The return on investment is almost unquantifiable,” Bell said of expanding free school meals. “When you are hungry, it is hard to concentrate, it’s hard to learn, it’s hard to participate, move your body, make new friends, feel safe. And school foods are often found to be the healthiest foods children have access to in a given day.”