(The Center Square) — All children in Washington would receive free school meals under a plan proposed by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal. He will ask the Legislature to spend $86 million a year to provide breakfast and lunch to the 330,000 Washington students who don’t currently qualify for free meals.
“When students are hungry, their ability to learn and engage in school is impacted,” Reykdal said in a statement Thursday. “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.”
Offering free meals to everyone will also remove the stigma sometimes attached to participating in the free lunch program, according to Drayton Jackson, president of the Central Kitsap School Board.
“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,” Drayton said in a statement. “A universal free school meals program will eliminate that stigma and result in more students being fed.”
Despite the advantages, critics point out that the program is costly and often wasteful.
“According to the Office of Management and Budget, the National School Lunch Program lost nearly $800 million owing to improper payments in fiscal year 2018, while the School Breakfast Program lost $300 million,” Jonathan Butcher of the Heritage Foundation wrote. “The Office of Management and Budget calls these programs ‘high-priority’ programs because of the misspending.”
Due to disruptions in school attendance due to COVID-19, the federal government granted waivers to the National School Lunch Program that made free meals available to all children starting in 2022. Those waivers, which had been renewed several times, expired in June. That means free or reduced-cost school meals will once again be available based on financial need for the 2022-2023 school year.
Between the NSLP and the federal Community Eligibility Provision, which provides free meals in schools with a higher concentration of impoverished students, about two thirds of Washington’s 1.1 million school children already receive meals at no cost.
Federal guidelines indicate that 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, according to the Washington State Department of Education.
California, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Nevada offer free meals to all public school students, NPR reported.