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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bill to expand free school meals advances in Washington legislature

Students flood into the commons to grab burgers,nacho and pizza during the lunch hour at Lewis and Clark High School Friday, Feb. 11, 2022.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Elena Perry The Spokesman-Review

A bill that would provide free meals to all students in qualifying schools passed the state House of Representatives Thursday.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, would ensure all students in eligible schools have access to free breakfasts and lunches in school cafeterias. This is the latest step in the Legislature’s multiyear effort to expand free meals in schools. Spokane Public Schools already offers universal free meals to all students, but this bill would bring free meals to more of Washington’s students.

“We know that hungry kids can’t learn,” Riccelli said. “We know that if they have access to nutrition, they’ll thrive in school, they can learn and grow and play, and they’ll do it in a healthy way.”

The bill has changed significantly since it was originally introduced and heard in committee. In its initial inception, the bill ensured universal free meals for all requesting students in all schools across the state. Following amendments and substitutions, the scope of the bill has lessened from all students to those in schools satisfying certain conditions.

In the 2023-24 school year, the bill would only apply to schools with students from kindergarten to fourth grade with at least 30% of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. All students in qualifying schools would receive free lunches, regardless of family income. In this first year, 116 new schools would serve universal free meals to approximately 44,000 students.

In the following three years, the program would expand to all K-12 schools with at least 40% of students that qualify for free or reduced-price meals. In these subsequent years, 46,000 additional students would receive free meals from 104 new schools. In total, 634,000 students would receive free meals, over half of the 1.1 million total population of schoolchildren in Washington.

The original version of the bill, Riccelli said, would cost too much out of the education budget. The bill’s first version had an estimated $173 million price tag for two years of free meals, while the update passed by the House would cost over $55 million for four years.

“I would say we can’t afford to not feed students,” Riccelli said. “But we have competing priorities and things that matter.”

The Legislature also is considering ideas to boost funding for special education and behavioral health needs this session.

The lunch bill passed the House nearly unanimously, with votes 93-3 and two members excused. Spokane-area representatives were divided on the issue, with Reps. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, and Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, voting no. Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane, voted a “frustrated” yes.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” he said . “The taxpayers are providing it.”

Bill supporters and opponents alike recognized that the number of applications for free and reduced-price meals is a metric used in other areas where schools receive federal funding. Schmick voted no because of this issue, he said. Some lawmakers such as Schmick are concerned that because parents won’t have to apply for free lunches any more, some schools could lose federal funding based on the lack of data. There are other metrics to measure need for food and funding, like family incomes, and Riccelli and other supporters said they intend to address these concerns after the passage of the bill.

Following its victory in the House, the bill heads to a Senate committee for public hearing.

While he’s disappointed the bill’s scope was reduced significantly, Riccelli said he plans to continue advocating for universal free meals in schools until they become a reality in Washington.

“We’re not going to stop until we get universal meals,” Riccelli said. “We’re in it for the long haul.”