Spokane Lawmaker Revives Proposal for $86 Million Taxpayer-Funded School Lunch Program

(The Marketplace) – Legislation to force school lunches for all students attending public, charter, and state-tribal schools in Washington to be paid for by taxpayers is being brought back by a Spokane congressman.

House Bill 2058 was introduced by Democratic state representative Marcus Riccelli of the 3rd Legislative District and was referred to the House Committee on Education. The committee held a public hearing on January 11 and has set an executive session for this Thursday at 8 a.m.

The bill has thirty-four cosponsors. Senator T’wina Nobles of Tacoma, the sponsor of a related bill, Senate Bill 5964, had its first reading by the Senate Early Learning and K–12 Education Committee last week.

As written, HB 2058 would mandate that school districts serve free breakfast and lunch to any student who requests it, regardless of their financial situation. The first phase of the program would start in the 2024–2025 academic year. Additionally, it would change the financing arrangements for a few learning support initiatives and the bonuses given to nationally qualified employees through 2028. If financing is not included in the state’s operating budget, the bill’s provisions would become void even if it is passed into law.

Spokane Lawmaker Revives Proposal for $86 Million Taxpayer-Funded School Lunch Program (1)

“This is not a budgetary or partisan issue,” Riccelli stated on his official congressional website. It concerns children. For growing children to thrive, they require wholesome meals.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction estimates that the state will incur higher costs of $86.3 million annually.

Last year, Riccelli submitted legislation along these lines. Although the “universal meals” plan was not approved, a modified version was, and it was signed into law to extend the free school meal program to more than half of the 1.1 million public school pupils in the state. On September 1, the program’s modifications are expected to go into effect.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture now funds school breakfast and lunch programs that offer free or reduced-price meals to students. Eligibility is determined by comparing the household income of the student to various federal poverty levels. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Washington oversees the programs and reimburses school districts for meals supplied that satisfy federal regulations. The Community Eligibility Provision is an additional option to household applications that permits schools with a significant proportion of low-income pupils to provide free meals to every student.

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“Learning loss and failing test scores are common topics of conversation,” Riccelli said. Making ensuring our children get enough food to support their success and don’t go to school hungry is one way we can solve it.

Regardless of financial situation, OSPI is in favor of taxpayer-funded free meals for all students. To complement federal reimbursement and cover expenditures for schools that are not qualified to participate in federal universal meal programs, the superintendent’s office has requested state aid.

State funding would specifically cover the $3.56 gap between the USDA’s $4.35 “free” lunch rate and its 79-cent “paid” meal reimbursement rate. That works out to a monthly meal savings of around $400 for a household of five. The difference between 50 cents for a purchased meal and the USDA’s reimbursement rate of $2.67 for “free” qualification for breakfasts is $2.17.

As a result, the state would have to pay local school districts an estimated $86.3 million annually to cover the expected 21.45 million lunches and 4.57 million breakfasts.

According to OSPI, free student meals result in much higher participation rates, the elimination of the need for school districts to spend time and resources monitoring and collecting meal debts from families, and the removal of the stigma associated with students who are thought to be impoverished because they eat school meals, especially breakfast.

According to OSPI, “many hungry students choose not to eat for fear of being recognized in front of their peers.”

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