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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Megan Pirie: School meals matter: I know, first hand

Megan Pirie

By Megan Pirie

In my professional life, I navigate community members struggling with opiate use as they seek recovery and reunification with their family members. In August, when the grant I was working under ended, I applied for unemployment. When I lost my job, as a mother of five, I was instantly worried about how we were going to feed our children. Thankfully my children were able to receive free school breakfast and lunch because of existing school meal programs. Today, these programs are under threat.

I never imagined being in the position of deciding between putting food in lunch boxes and keeping a roof over my family; and I hope that no family here in Washington state, or anywhere, ever has to face this dilemma. The state Senate has the power to make sure that no family in the Evergreen state has to pick between utility bills and feeding their children by passing House Bill 1878.

Child hunger is not a partisan issue, as evidenced by the state House of Representatives which recently passed the bill with largely bipartisan support. This legislation would require eligible schools to use available federal funding through the Community Eligibility Provision, allowing them to provide more meals to hungry students at no cost. The pandemic has only amplified child hunger in Washington and across the country. Last year, it was estimated that 13 million children experienced hunger nationally – which is 2 million more than there were before COVID-19. Right here in our own backyard, 1 in 3 Washington families have struggled with food insecurity throughout the pandemic. Without proper nutrition, children suffer – they are distracted and disinterested in learning. School-provided meals help keep children nourished and energized throughout the day, and entire school year. Well-fed children means kids can be kids and can focus on learning, not on grumbling stomachs.

State legislators should seize the opportunity to invest in child nutrition. This investment will pay off in the long run when today’s children grow up strong and healthy. The proposed legislation would provide state funds for meal reimbursement – meaning for each school meal served, schools would be reimbursed at the federal rate, resulting in a dramatic increase of access to healthy meals for children across the state. We are jeopardizing the future of our workforce when children are going to school hungry, preventing students from working toward their bright futures.

Regardless of the ZIP code, all children deserve to have access to nutritious meals so they can focus in the classroom. I have seen first-hand the power and impact of school-provided meals. It bridged the gap for my five children when we were going through tough times and provided an unparalleled sense of relief for me, making sure my children had access to nutritious meals throughout the day. That’s exactly why I recently testified before the state Legislature to share my story and the direct impact of the school lunch programs.

Legislators have the power to increase the number of schools providing free meals by 130% and increase the access to nutritious meals for high-poverty and high-need schools by 92,000 children.

Families should not be forced to make the decision between paying rent and feeding their family nutritious meals. All children deserve the opportunity to go to school and not worry about being hungry. They should focus instead on lessons in the classroom and the pursuit of a strong academic foundation to ensure lifelong success. To accomplish this, state legislators should continue their commitment to healthy families by increasing school participation in free school meals for all students and passing HB 1878 during this legislative session. My family benefited from school lunches and I want to make sure that other families that go through tough times have the same opportunity as we did.

Megan Pirie is a licensed substance use disorder counselor, mother of five and a Save the Children Action Network advocate. She lives in Spokane.