Olympia – Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation to expand the number of schools that offer free meals to all of their students today. Sponsored by Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane), House Bill 1878 would require schools to participate in the USDA’s Community Eligibility Program (CEP) if eligible and provides funding to ensure that school districts are not left to foot the bill.
“Food is health. Consistent access to nutritious food is a part of how we protect kids from getting sick while ensuring they have the fuel they need to learn, grow, and play,” said Riccelli. “And free school meals are the most effective way to ensure that all of our kids are getting the food they need to thrive.”
The USDA’s Community Eligibility Program (CEP) allows schools with a certain percent of students whose households receive assistance from programs like SNAP or Medicaid, are in foster care placements, or who struggle with housing stability, to apply for community eligibility which provides funding to serve free meals to all of the students at that school. Removing lunch co-pays and the stigma of free and reduced lunch can more effectively provide students with the nutrition they need to succeed.
In 2020 the Legislature required all schools that are eligible for CEP to participate in the program if it cost the same amount to provide free meals for the entire school as it did to just serve those who qualified for free and reduced lunch. Currently, 491 schools in Washington operate CEP and serve free meals to around 204,000 students with 9 more schools serving 3,300 students coming online soon.
HB 1878 would require all schools to participate in CEP if they are eligible under USDA rules. This would expand the program to an additional 626 schools and over 92,000 students. The bill also requires the state to cover the excess costs of implementing the program.
“This is an important step on our path to ending childhood hunger in Washington. I was hopeful with pending federal action we could go even further, but feeding kids can’t wait,” said Riccelli. “Without increasing costs on schools, HB 1878 will let us serve free school meals to, at minimum, an additional 92,000 students including 12,000 in the Spokane area. In addition to nutrition for health, we know hungry kids can’t learn.”
The bill passed the state House on February 10th with a vote of 93-3 and the state Senate on February 25th with a vote of 45-4. It will be in effect for the 2022-23 school year.