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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Proposal to expand free lunch to all public school students in Washington gains bipartisan support

Stacy Marker restocks a quickly dwindling tray of cheeseburgers at the lunch counter at Lewis and Clark High School during a busy lunch hour Friday.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Stacy Marker restocks a quickly dwindling tray of cheeseburgers at the lunch counter at Lewis and Clark High School during a busy lunch hour Friday. (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW) Buy this photo
By Elena Perry The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – More than 200,000 children in Washington struggle with hunger, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit hunger-relief organization.

A bill heard in the state Senate on Monday and in the state House of Representatives on Tuesday attempts to address the issue by establishing free meals for all public school students.

The bill has bipartisan support, with legislators from both sides of the aisle appearing as sponsors on House and Senate version of the legislation.

“It’s a basic need. We know that they’ll be healthier,” said Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, the sponsor of the House bill. “That with nutritious food, they’ll be better in the classroom. There’ll be less disruptions.”

Riccelli said he was motivated to sponsor the bill in part after witnessing the “hugely successful” free school meals program that the federal government implemented during the pandemic. During the pandemic, families didn’t have to apply to be part of this program, as free meals were ensured for all students.

Those measures have since been lifted. Now, families who meet certain income-based criteria must fill out applications for free or reduced -price lunch. In October 2021, 46.8% of students that ate school lunches were receiving them free or at a reduced price, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Supporters said that by ensuring free meals for all students in Washington, it will eliminate possible shame that could come from asking for or receiving a free lunch.

Students shouldn’t have to go without lunch if their family declines free lunch out of pride, said Sen. T’wina Nobles, D-Fircrest, the sponsor of the Senate’s version of the bill.

A federal program, called the Community Eligibility Provision, allows schools with a high number of low-income students, determined based on their family’s enrollment in supplemental nutrition programs, to offer free meals to all students. During the 2022 legislative session, lawmakers passed legislation that expanded the benefits of this program to more schools. Sponsors of this 2023 bill intend to take this program one step further.

Nikki Lockwood, a Spokane Public Schools board member, said the district was able to continue providing free meals to students after the pandemic, thanks to the bill passed last year.

“We simply have less barriers and more kids eating food,” Lockwood said.

Supporters emphasize the consequences the proposal would have on an administrative level. Lockwood said students don’t have to wait for approved applications, administration doesn’t have to handle cash or address balance issues in students’ accounts. Overall, she said, it reduced the administrative burden.

The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction estimates that if passed universal free school lunch would cost $173 million in the biennium budget.

Public testimony was largely in support of the bills, with only one testifier opposing the bill in the House and the Senate. Jason Perrins, superintendent of Chewelah School District, voiced concerns that if passed, the bill would encourage students to be overly reliant on the state to cater to their needs.

“To have a generation grow up believing that the state will feed them and take care of them undermines everything we are trying to do to teach our children about becoming independent, self-sufficient citizens,” Perrins said.

The bill is scheduled for a vote of the Senate committee on Monday, and Democratic leadership said they stood behind data that indicates students learn better when they’re well fed.

“For many of our students, we know that being food insecure impacts not only their ability to focus in class, their ability to feel as if they’re ready to learn, but also it comes with a lot of anxiety,” House Majority Floor Leader Rep. Monica Jurado Stonier, D-Vancouver, said. “There are lots of stories about teachers holding online school and realizing, by seeing straight into households, how some of our kids are struggling with food insecurity.”

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