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Sunday, October 2, 2022

Reykdal Introduces Proposal To Provide School Meals At No Cost To All Washington Students

Reykdal’s proposal will ask the state Legislature to invest $86 million annually to provide meals at no charge to the 330,000 students that are not currently eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

This article is one of a series of articles produced by Word in Black through support provided by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Word In Black is  a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media outlets across the country.

By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium

Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal says that he will introduce a proposal to Governor Jay Inslee and the State Legislature to provide funding that will allow all students in the state of Washington to receive school meals at no charge as part of their basic education.

According to Reykdal, there are some children who come to school with hunger pains, and this presents many challenges. During the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, assistance from the federal government made it possible for all Washington students to have meals free of charge. That funding expanded the access to school meals for hundreds of thousands of students but as these waivers come to an end parents will be expected to be financially responsible for meals during the school day or submit meal applications to determine eligibility for free or reduced-price meals.

“When students are hungry, their ability to learn and engage in school is impacted,” said Reykdal. “Quality nutrition is a key component of student success and access to meals is an important part of being at school. We have to stop expecting families to foot the bill for resources and supports that are a normal part of the school day.”

The Federal government governs student eligibility for free or reduced-price meals. Under current prerequisites, a family of four with a household income of $51,338 per year would pay around $2,330 per year for their children to have healthy breakfast and lunch provided at school. With universal school meals, all students would eat without fees, regardless of their family’s income.

Childhood hunger has become a major talking point and a point of issue surrounding the health and well-being of students. Free meals aid in the effectiveness in making sure that all children are receiving the necessary and proper nutrition to be successful in their studies.

“Food is health,” said Rep. Marcus Riccelli. “Consistent access to nutritious food is a part of how we protect kids from getting sick while ensuring they have the fuel they need to learn, grow, and play, and free school meals are the most effective way to ensure that all of our kids are getting the food they need to thrive. This is an important step on our path to ending childhood hunger in Washington. Feeding kids can’t wait.”

In 2022, the Legislature made great strides in expanding the number of students receiving free meals at school by necessitating that all eligible schools participate in the federal government’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). This program provides meals without fees to all children in schools where large percentages of students are experiencing poverty.

With the expansion of CEP during the 2022–23 school year, over half of Washington’s students will be in a school providing meals to all students at no cost. Reykdal’s proposal asks the Legislature to invest $86 million annually to provide meals at no charge to the 330,000 students that are not currently eligible for free or reduced-price meals and not attending a CEP school.

“Over the pandemic I saw students enjoying school meals who didn’t previously because of the stigma associated with free-and-reduced price lunch programs,” said Drayton Jackson, Central Kitsap School Board President and Federal Relations Network Chair for the Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA). “A universal free school meals program will eliminate that stigma and result in more students being fed.”

Because of stigmas that persist in the social circles of students, receiving free or reduced-price meals can sometimes be a source of shame for students, resulting in them being less likely to access meals at school presenting other challenges.

“Students know when their peers can’t afford meals in our schools,” said Zachary Glenn, former Student Representative to the Kennewick School Board and 2022 graduate. “When students are hungry, it makes it more difficult for them to focus on school, and it also creates a clear divide in the lunchroom of who can and can’t afford food. Universal free school meals directly address these issues and lets our schools provide supports for every student.”

School nutrition services professionals know the pitfalls of the free and reduced-price model firsthand. From tracking student meal debt to following up on incomplete forms, the current model creates many administrative deficiencies that would be eliminated with universal free meals.

“Students and parents are nervous about missing the deadline for applications or not having enough money on their student accounts,” said Megan de Vries, Director of Food & Nutrition Services at Edmonds School District. “We want students to spend their energy on learning, not stressing about basic needs.”

Several states have already moved to a universal meals model, including California, Vermont, and Massachusetts. Washington has an opportunity to join a growing number of states leading the country in providing meals to all students at no cost to the student.

The proposal to provide students with universal access to school meals is the fourth in a series of transformational budget and policy proposals Superintendent Reykdal will unveil through November called Washington State Innovates: K–12 Education for the 21st Century and Beyond.

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