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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

All Spokane Public Schools student will be eligible for free lunch this school year

Debbie Richardson takes orders for nachos as the lunch hour begins at Lewis and Clark High School in February.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

All students in Spokane Public Schools will continue to receive free meals this year despite the disappearance of the pandemic-era federal free lunch program.

During the pandemic, the school district provided federally backed free meals for all students, and that will continue with some new legislative support despite the loss of those federal funds.

“This is recognition that there is a value in our state that no kid should ever be hungry,” Superintendent Adam Swinyard said last week during a news conference with state Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, at Lewis and Clark High School.

The school district says it was possible to provide free meals to its students thanks to bipartisan legislation approved earlier this year and the Community Eligibility Program. Among the sponsors of the legislation were Riccelli; Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, and Jacquelin Maycumber, R-Okanogan.

It allows schools with a minimum percentage of low-income students to participate in the federal Community Eligibility Provision program.

Unlike the free and reduced-price meal initiatives that allow individual families to apply for meal benefits with their schools, the federal program allows schools with a certain demonstrated percentage of low-income students to provide meals for free to all students.

Before the legislation was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, all students at middle and elementary schools would be eligible for free lunch if at least 62.5% of students qualified for free lunch based on poverty qualifications. School districts paid the full cost for free meals but receive funding from the federal government to cover those costs.

A previous measure Riccelli sponsored in 2020 put the 62.5% threshold in place, identifying the percentage as the “break-even” point for schools to participate in the program without losing money. The new law lowered that percentage of students to 40%, increasing the number of schools where all students are eligible for free lunch.

State funding would be given to schools to make sure they can afford to participate in the program.

According to a nonpartisan bill analysis, about 204,000 students statewide participated in the program in the 2021-22 school year. Riccelli said at least 92,000 additional students, including 12,000 in the Spokane area, will be eligible under the changes.

Riccelli said he’s in conversations with the Office of Public Instruction to launch a joint proposal to expand food access further.

“Next stop, universal free meals in Washington state,” Riccelli said. “I’ll be working on that legislation and we’re going to take this completely off the table so it’s not 44% of our kids in Washington state, it’s 100%.”