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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Rep. Marcus Riccelli: Hungry kids can’t learn. Let’s feed them.

By Rep. Marcus Riccelli Washington House of Representatives

Hungry kids can’t learn. That’s an easy concept to understand. I know my productivity goes down when I skip breakfast or work through my lunch break. It’s no different for children in the classroom.

Washington state could do a better job making sure every child has a meal when the lunch bell rings. Kids go hungry every day and we haven’t done enough to get them fed. We are 44th in the nation when it comes to implementing the Community Eligibility Program (CEP), a federal program through USDA that reimburses schools for feeding students. The money is there, available to schools that need it, and we aren’t taking enough of it for our kids.

Funding for schools has gone up, but that money is going to classrooms, teacher salaries and supplies. Those are important, and necessary, for learning. But so is a healthy meal.

School districts operate on tight budgets, and every dollar spent has a real impact on how your child is educated. It is no surprise that delinquent lunch debt has resulted in “lunch shaming,” which includes countless hours of administrative staff wasting time chasing down parents to pay – even when the parents can’t afford the cost of their child’s meals.

Lunch shaming doesn’t work. It just highlights a problem we know exists across our state: Kids are going hungry every day. Some students qualify for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch. Others don’t.

It’s time to end the food insecurity and inequity that exists in our school cafeterias and make certain every kid has a full stomach. I have a plan that can put us on the path of making sure every child has a meal when they go to school. It’s called the Hunger-Free Schools Act (House Bill 2660) and it doesn’t cost a thing.

The federal government’s CEP program lets schools with high numbers of low-income students serve free meals to ALL students. If a school qualifies, every student gets a free lunch, regardless of income status.

A lot of schools could qualify but currently don’t because of how complicated the process is. Some school districts have tried, and failed, because some schools met the eligibility requirements and some schools didn’t, leaving the overall district below the threshold. But CEP is flexible, and we can find a path forward for all eligible schools.

With a little help from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and creative grouping of schools, allowed under the CEP requirements, a lot more Washington schools could qualify for this program and start feeding all their students free meals.

The Hunger-Free Schools Act requires free school breakfasts and lunch in the schools that qualify for CEP. This bill passed off the House floor 97-1 and later easily passed the Senate, because feeding kids has always been a bipartisan issue, going back to Speaker Tom Foley and the creation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). CEP, like SNAP, will be paid for by the federal government, with no cost to the state.

The Hunger-Free Schools Act ensures the availability of breakfasts and lunches for about 7,200 students provided by 15 more Washington schools and puts us on track for many more kids to be fed. Several Spokane-area schools, including Shaw Middle School, Longfellow Elementary and Sheridan Elementary, will be among those required to participate in CEP. That means thousands more students getting free breakfast and lunch without fear of lunch shaming.

Every kid deserves to be fed. The Hunger-Free Schools Act, sent to Gov. Inslee on March 12 and awaiting his signature, allows us to feed them and give them the education they deserve. Showing up ready to learn every day means ending childhood hunger in our schools.

Marcus Riccelli, D, is a member of the Washington House of Representatives, representing the 3rd District.