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Washington legislators, state superintendent hope to make school meals free to all students

sps lunch cropped.jpg
Rebecca White
The Lewis and Clark High School cafeteria in Spokane. Meals are already free at Spokane Public Schools because of a vote in the state legislature last session.

A group of Washington leaders has introduced legislation to make school meals free for all students.

The proposal will be sponsored by Spokane Representative Marcus Riccelli and Fircrest Senator T’wina Nobles.

It also has the strong support of the state superintendent’s office. Chris Reykdal, Washington’s superintendent of public instruction, said school meals are an investment, which will help many families still struggling with economic challenges made worse by the pandemic.

“$86 million dollars is never anything to sneeze about,” Reykdal said during a media briefing Thursday. “It’s significant resources. But what we're trying to do is help policymakers understand that there are some investments that maintain what we do, and then there are investments that accelerate learning and accelerate family security, and ultimately reduce child hunger and child poverty.”

Congress previously authorized free meals for all students, but that support stopped in June. Washington legislators responded to the expiration of the program by expanding access to nearly half of the state’s students.

Riccelli said only providing lunch to some still leaves stigma and doesn’t address many families' increasing need.

“So the question is why stop there?” he said. “Do we really need a global pandemic to ensure that we are feeding kids, and that all Washington students have access to healthy nutritious food, what they need to learn and grow? And I think the answer is a resounding no. We don't need a global pandemic to feed kids and that's not an excuse in Washington.”

If legislators approve the bill next year, providing free lunches would cost the state about $86 million dollars annually. Local school districts would start serving free meals at the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year.