State superintendent announces proposal for free school meals

Proposal asks WA Legislature to allocate $86 million annually.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal announced a proposal Sept. 8 to provide school meals at no cost to all students across Washington.

The proposal will be submitted by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature for consideration in next year’s legislative session. If the Legislature decides to fund the program, Washington’s 1.1 million students would have the option to eat for free at school.

During the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal waivers allowed school districts to offer free meals. However, those waivers ended this year, meaning thousands of students will be expected to pay for their meals during the 2022-23 school year, according to OSPI.

“When students are hungry, their ability to learn and engage in school is impacted,” Reykdal said. “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.”

Under the current system, children can go into debt for eating lunch if their family makes too much to qualify for free and reduced-price meals, but too little to afford regularly priced meals. According to a 2021 report by the Education Data Initiative, the national public school lunch debt is $262 million per year. In Washington, the average debt per student is $170.21.

Recently, the state Legislature required all eligible schools to participate in the federal government’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP.) The CEP provides meals at no cost to students in schools with large percentages of students in poverty. Over half of Washington’s students will receive free meals during the upcoming school year through the CEP, according to the OSPI.

Reykdal’s proposal is for the Legislature to allocate $86 million annually to provide meals at no cost to the 330,000 students who don’t qualify for free and reduced-priced meals and who don’t attend CEP-eligible schools.

If the Legislature approves Reykdal’s proposal, Washington would join states including California, Vermont and Massachusetts in providing universal free meals to students.