By Rep. Marcus Riccelli
Megan’s kids used to hate getting the free and reduced-price lunch at school. Was there enough money to cover the lunch co-pay in their account? The stigma of choosing from the limited free and reduced-price lunch food options, announcing their family’s economic status, was embarrassing. For Megan, a mother of 5 who volunteers as the director of a nonprofit which supports re-entry for the formerly incarcerated, it was one more bill to worry about. Despite losing her job in August, however, food has not been Megan’s biggest worry.
That is because Congress took action during the pandemic and allowed schools to serve free meals to all children and provided low-income families with pandemic EBT cards to help with groceries when children could not attend school. These programs (in combination with increased SNAP benefits, the Child Tax Credit, and increased flexibility in WIC) have been successful at holding back what could have been a wave of childhood hunger. The latest USDA food insecurity data showed that the number of food-insecure households did not increase in 2020, despite massive economic instability.
Food is health. Consistent access to nutritious foods is part of how we protect kids from getting sick while ensuring they have the fuel they need to learn, grow and play. It is a remarkable accomplishment that our country was able to keep kids fed despite a global pandemic that kept them out of school during a massive economic recession.
But why stop there? Do we really need a global pandemic as an excuse to ensure that all of Washington’s children have the healthy, nutritious food they need to learn and grow?
With the Build Back Better agenda, we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to end hunger for our school-age children. Build Back Better would expand summer EBT nationwide and make changes to the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) so that more schools will have access to the funding they need to provide meals at no cost to families. It also offers grants to schools to obtain the equipment they need to cook with fresh ingredients, teaching kids healthy eating habits to last a lifetime. CEP allows schools with a certain percent of students whose households receive assistance from programs like SNAP or Medicaid, are in foster care placements, or who struggle with housing stability, to apply for community eligibility. This means schools can serve free meals to all students. The Build Back Better agenda would lower the eligibility requirements for community eligibility, which increases the number of meals served that are fully reimbursed. It also allows states to apply for statewide community eligibility. According to the Washington state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, under these proposed changes for CEP, Washington could provide free meals to 548,139 students – nearly doubling the current number of eligible children.
Here in Washington, we are ready to ensure these programs have the policies and funding in place to achieve results. In 2019, I passed a bill requiring schools to apply for CEP (if it made financial sense), which expanded the number of children who could receive free meals. With the expanded eligibility we will be able to rapidly scale up this program.
Thanks to temporary federal waivers, Megan’s kids attend a school that provides meals at no cost to all schoolchildren and report that they aren’t embarrassed to get lunch anymore. If Congress expands these CEP options, all schools will have access to the federal funding they need to continue to provide meals at no cost, even after those waivers sunset.
Meanwhile, the pandemic EBT card has allowed Megan to pay her other bills while ensuring that her children have enough to eat. She especially likes using the EBT card at farmers markets where the Department of Health’s Fruit and Vegetable Incentives Program allows her to double her buying power when she buys fresh, local fruits and veggies. I am proud to have sponsored the bill that made this program possible. Not only does this help Megan feed her kids with healthy, nutritious food, but it funnels money back into our local economy.
We must seize this opportunity. This is a win for our children, a win for our community, a win for our schools, and a win for our economy.
Congress can make universal school meals and summer EBT a reality for every child in the country. Join me in asking Congress to keep the child nutrition provisions in the Build Back Better Agenda and end child hunger now.
Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D, represents the 3rd Legislative District in the Washington state House of Representatives.
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