OLYMPIA – Children in schools with a high percentage of low-income students would all get free breakfast and lunch while at school, under a bill moving through the Legislature.
“We can’t expect kids who are hungry or doing their homework by the dome light of a car to be successful. They need to be fed,” said Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, the bill’s sponsor.
Spokane Public Schools is among the districts with the most families getting help from federal food assistance programs, he said. In 2015, 16% of Spokane County youth reported experiencing food insecurity, slightly above the state average, according to data collected by the Spokane Regional Health District.
Elementary and middle schools with 62.5% of students eligible for free lunches would be required to make the meals free for all students through the Community Eligibility Provision program, according to the bill.
Fifteen schools in the state, including Shaw Middle School and Audubon, Lidgerwood, Longfellow and Trent elementary schools, would be required to provide free lunches for all their students.
Several schools in Spokane already give all students free meals, including Bemiss and Whitman elementary schools.
“I’m pleased that some of our schools are already doing it, but I don’t think it’s been fast enough,” Riccelli said.
It’s difficult for children to do well in school and focus on test scores when they’re hungry, Riccelli said. There also is a stigma attached to students on free and reduced-price lunch, he said, and the program would be designed to address that stigma.
Washington would become the 44th state to use a program to provide all students free lunch, Riccelli said. The program would use money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As the program grows, Riccelli said it also will reduce the burden administrators may have trying to track down lunch debt or making sure there’s someone taking tickets for students who receive free meals.
National Teacher Certification bonuses were tied to the free and reduced lunch metrics and data collection. It took time to figure out how to make sure kids are fed without harming the bonuses teachers receive, Riccelli said.
An amendment proposed by Rep. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane Valley, to exempt schools funded by a local entity that gives free meals to all students was adopted on the House floor. The bill was passed 97-1 and sent to the Senate.
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