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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Eligibility for free school meals widens after Inslee signs Riccelli bill into law

At Stevens Elementary School in Spokane, teacher Casey Campbell, right, offers Trenton Lang, 9, left, a lunch of a chicken drumstick, apple sauce, trail mix and milk in a fourth-grade class in this April 2021 photo. On Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a bill that increases eligibility for schools and students to receive cost-free meals.   (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
By Albert James The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – A bill expanding eligibility for students to receive free meals at school was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday.

Under the federal Community Eligibility Provision program, schools that have a certain proportion of low-income students have the option to provide meals for free to all students. Under the new law, all schools eligible for the program will be required to participate in the program and receive state support in order to do so.

“This means more students will get the nutrition they need while removing a stigma and barrier that impacts their learning,” Inslee said before signing the bill.

Previously, middle and elementary schools with at least 62.5% of students eligible were required by the state to participate in the free meal program. The bill signed into law lowers that threshold to 40% and expands the program to public schools serving all grades.

School districts pay the full cost for free meals but receive funding from the federal government to offset those costs. State funding will be given to schools to make sure they can afford to participate in the program.

“Making sure kids have access to nutritious food is one of the ways we can protect them from getting sick and ensure that they have the fuel they need to learn, grow and play,” sponsor Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, said. “Not only is this a great step forward that we built upon since a bill that was passed in 2020, but it is hopefully setting us up for further expansion.”

According to a nonpartisan bill analysis, about 204,000 students statewide attend schools participating in the program in the 2021-22 school year. Riccelli said at least 92,000 additional students, including 12,000 in the Spokane area, are now eligible.

School districts will be required to group schools together to ensure the greatest number of schools meet the eligibility threshold. Charter and certain tribal schools will also be subject to the participation mandate.

Doug Wordell, director of nutrition services for Spokane Public Schools, said 13 schools are currently participating in the program and 15 more will participate now that the bill is law. He told The Spokesman-Review last month that an additional 3,000 to 5,000 students in Spokane Public Schools would become eligible for the program, on top of the approximately 5,000 who already participate.

This year’s House supplemental operating budget proposal includes $21 million to fund the expansion. The Senate proposal does not account for the program expansion.

Budget writers in the House and Senate will work together to determine how much funding will go toward supporting the expansion.

The supplemental operating budget will need to pass the Legislature by the end of the session on Thursday.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that an additional 3,000 to 5,000 students in Spokane Public Schools, not Spokane County, will be eligible for the program.