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Lawmakers plan to expand the number of students who receive free and reduced meals

Free lunches for all public-school students is apparently off the table in the state Legislature, but House members are now considering phasing-in paid lunches for kindergarten through fourth grade.

“While I am disappointed we are unable to move legislation that will cover all kids with universal meals, I am pleased that we are continuing to move legislation forward that will help us take another step toward the goal,” said bill sponsor Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane.

House Bill 1238 originally provided universal free lunches next year and was approved by the House Education Committee. But now the bill will phase in meal provision requirements over two years, beginning in the 2023-24 school year in schools with 40% or more of their students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

The bill is now awaiting action on the House floor and still must be considered by the Senate. A provision of the bill renders it void if it is not funded in the final budget that passes the Legislature later this year.

A similar measure, Senate Bill 5339, sponsored by T’wina Nobles, D-Fircrest, also proposes free school lunches for all students.

The amended House Bill is estimated to bring 116 elementary schools and 44,000 new student lunches in the 2023-2024 school year and continue to grow to a total of 1,430 schools and 634,000 students covered by universal meals.

The cost of free meals for all students was estimated at $96 million per year while the revised bill is estimated to cost more than $7 million for the 2023-2024 school year. In the years that follow, costs would more than double.

“Food is health. Consistent access to nutritious food is part of how we protect kids from getting sick while ensuring they have the fuel they need to learn, grow and play,” Riccelli said. “We know they won’t thrive if they don’t have food in their belly and a roof over their head.”

Currently, The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act allows low-income schools to have free school meals. If at least 40% of the district's student population falls below the federal poverty level, the district is eligible for free or reduced meals for all students.

Families can also individually submit applications to determine student eligibility for free or reduced-price meals. To qualify for free meals, a student’s family income must be at or below 130% of the federal poverty level. Students whose families have an income between 130% and 185% of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals. Students whose families earn more than 185% of the poverty level pay full price.

During the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, families had access to free meals to ease financial burdens during the pandemic. Many families lost access to the federal program and returned to a needs-based meal program.

The bill was made by request of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to support families who don’t meet the threshold to qualify for financial support programs.

“A family making $52,000 per year with three elementary school students spends around $1,800 per year on school meals. This is a real thing for families,” said Mikhail Cherniske, of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Some lawmakers said they were concerned many students in need of reduced school lunches don’t get them because a form is required to qualify. Lawmakers are strategizing with schools on ways to encourage more people to apply so more students can have access to universal meals.