Under a proposal announced by State Superintendent Chris Reykdal, all of Washington’s 1.1 million students would receive school meals at no charge as part of their basic education.
“When students are hungry, their ability to learn and engage in school is impacted,” said State Superintendent Chris 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.”
During the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, waivers from the federal government allowed all students to eat free of charge. Starting this school year, those waivers went away, and 330,000 students and their families once again are required to pay for meals or submit meal applications to determine eligibility for free or reduced-price meals.
“Food is health. 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,” said Rep. Marcus Riccelli (3rd Legislative District). “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.”
Federal requirements govern student eligibility for free or reduced-price meals.
Under current requirements, 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 family income status.
Through child nutrition waivers allowing free meals for all students, schools served over 130 million meals last school year — 20 million more than before the pandemic. During the 2018–19 school year, 110 million meals were served.
In 2022, the Legislature required all eligible schools to participate in the federal government’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) whichprovides meals without fees to all students in schools with large percentages of students experiencing poverty.
With the expansion of CEP, in 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 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.”
Several states have moved to a universal meals model, including California, Vermont, and Massachusetts.
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.
OSPI will submit the proposal to the Governor and Legislature for consideration in the 2023 Legislative Session. If funded, all Washington students will have access to universal school meals by the beginning of the 2023–24 school year.
Additional information about school meal programs: