Washington State House and Senate Committee approves bills that would make FREE school meals for ALL K-12 students

Michelle Northrop

Washington State House and Senate Committee approves bills that would make FREE school meals for ALL K-12 students.Photo byCDConUnsplash

The Washington State House Committee on Education and the State Senate Committee on Early Learning & K-12 Education passed two bills that would require all Washington school districts to provide free breakfast and lunch and would define school meals as part of basic education. That distinction means that the state would be required to provide funding for meals.

On February 7, 2023, Washington State House Committee on Education passed House Bill (HB) 1238 which would allow all kids in Washington to have FREE breakfast and lunch at schools. The bill is referred to the Appropriations Committee. The State Senate Committee on Learning & K-12 Education passed Senate Bill (SB) 5339 on January 30, 2023, and is referred to the Ways & Means Committee.

Starting the 2023-2024 school year, each school district, charter school, and state-tribal compact school would be required to provide one breakfast and one lunch during each school day to any student who requests a meal, at no cost, during the school year without consideration of the student's eligibility for a federally funded free or reduced-price meal. The meals must be nutritiously adequate and qualify for federal reimbursement.

SB 5339 states that many children experience food insecurity. Food is a basic need, and food insecurity is one of the barriers for developing a thriving workforce. Access to healthy food is one of the social determinants of health and is a top priority. Children cannot learn if they are hungry. Students' success should not be limited on the ability of a family's ability to afford food. Every family's circumstance is different.

There are 1.1 million students in Washington and around 700,000 qualify for free meals through different programs. Representative Marcus Riccelli believes the remaining 400,000 students should also have the option of free meals at school.

All students will have the same access to free breakfast and lunch meals under the proposed legislation. The Washington Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HB 1238/SB 5339) was first introduced by Senator T'Twina Nobles and Representative Marcus Riccelli.

Washington State Representative Marcus Riccelli stated that “Access to nutritious food is a key component to the health and well-being of children. Hungry kids can’t learn, and by providing meals to any student who wants one, we’re taking an effective and meaningful step toward ensuring that children won’t go hungry in our schools.”

If the bill passes into law, the obligation to provide meals at no charge to requesting students would be made part of the state's statutory program of basic education and would go into effect on July 1, 2025. The bill will also modify funding provisions for the Learning Assistance Program and National Board Certification bonuses for the 2024-2025 and 2025-2026 school years.

The bill also directs the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to convene a work group to identify and examine impacts on state-funded education programs resulting from requirements obligating school districts to provide meals at no charge to requesting students.

In 2020, federal legislation approved The Families First Coronavirus Response Act which allowed states, through a waiver issued by the Department of Agriculture, to provide meals at no charge to all students regardless of family income, through the 2021-2022 school year.

The universal meals program was very successful and many students received school meals. Students had more time for meals and socialization when they no longer navigated a payment system. Federal provisions authorizing states to provide meals at no charge to all students during the school year have expired.

Washington State Senator T'Twina Nobles said that “Student success cannot be limited by a family’s ability to afford food. To advance students’ chances at success, we need to make investments, especially into their most basic needs. As a mom and a former educator, I know hunger can be a barrier to education, and students can’t learn when they’re hungry. This legislation will ensure that our students’ attention will be on their education and not on where their next meal is coming from.”

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Writer, aspiring genealogist, and coffee lover covering the news in the SW Washington/PDX area.

Vancouver, WA

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