Free School Meals for All Washington Students Could Become a Reality

By United Way of King County, on September 14, 2022 | In Breaking the Cycle of Poverty, Helping Students Graduate, News

If there has been any silver lining from the COVID-19 pandemic it has been the federal government stepping up to ensure that school children eligible for free meals continued receiving them. In fact, during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, waivers from the federal government allowed all students to eat free of charge.

This year, however, those federal waivers have ended, leaving hundreds of thousands of students without free meals at a time when inflation has left food prices skyrocketing. In Washington state, however, Superintendent Chris Reykdal aims to do something about it.

The superintendent recently announced a proposal to continue to provide school meals at no cost to all Washington students. The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction will submit the proposal to the governor and Legislature for consideration in the 2023 legislative session. If funded, the measure would take effect as early as the start of the 2023–24 school year—meaning the state’s 1.1 million students would eat free with no charges, no paperwork to complete and no stigmas attached to low-income families.

“When students are hungry, their ability to learn and engage in school is impacted,” said Reykdal in a prepared statement announcing the proposal. “Quality nutrition is a key component of student success and access to meals is an important part of being at school. We have to stop expecting families to foot the bill for resources and supports that are a normal part of the school day.”

The proposal aligns with the work of United Way of King County, whose programs ensure all families—particularly people of color and marginalized groups—have both access to nutritious food and a quality education from early life through adulthood.

We don’t believe it should take a global pandemic to feed all kids.

Sara Seelmeyer, United Way senior manager, food security & benefits access.

It also coincides with National Better Breakfast Month, which reportedly began during World War I, when the United States government encouraged citizens to eat a better breakfast. In 1951, the Cereal Institute promoted Better Breakfast Month for the first time in September, according to published reports. The superintendent’s proposal will ensure that children statewide will continue to receive healthy, nutritious breakfasts to begin their school day.

“We don’t believe it should take a global pandemic to feed all kids,” said Sara Seelmeyer, United Way senior manager, food security & benefits access. “There’s tremendous value in schools offering free meals to all kids without requiring income applications to qualify for those meals. It reduces stigma, it supports undocumented students. It makes sure kids have consistent access to meals without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops.”

It marks the second time this year that lawmakers have made efforts to ensure that more children in the state receive free meals at school. During the Legislative session, lawmakers mandated that all eligible schools participate in the federal government’s Community Eligibility Provision, which was supported by United Way.

The program provides meals without fees to all students in schools with large percentages of students experiencing poverty. With the expansion of CEP, in the 2022–23 school year, over half of Washington’s students will be in a school providing meals to all students at no cost.

“We really have maximized that legislation,” said Seelmeyer. “Over 50% of all students in Washington this year will be at a school offering free meals to all students. But there is opportunity for Washington to go further.”

The superintendent’s proposal, Seelmeyer said, would leverage state funding to support federal funding used for free meals. “We see this as a critical step to reducing childhood hunger in Washington state. It does have a fairly large budget tag associated with it, but we think it is so absolutely critical to feed kids that it’s a pretty small price to pay for the benefits we would see in Washington state.”


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