Federal subsidy for program ends
Hundreds of students in the Methow Valley rely on free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch at school. More than half of the students at the Independent Learning Center and about one-third of the students at Methow Valley Elementary and Liberty Bell High School qualified for free or reduced meals over the past four years, according to data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
For the two years during the pandemic, school meals were free for all students, but that federal subsidy has ended. That means that only families who meet eligibility guidelines qualify for free or reduced meals. The change comes at a time when the rising cost of living is making it harder for many families to cover basic needs.
Without a subsidy, a family of four with two children in school pays more than $2,000 per year for school meals, according to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal. Across the state, 330,000 students will now be charged for breakfast and lunch again, he said.
Having adequate and nutritious meals has been shown to make a big difference in students’ ability to concentrate in class and leads to better academic success. Consistent, healthy meals improve attendance and build life-time healthy habits, helping kids to think differently about nutrition, Reykdal said in a Sept. 8 news briefing about his proposal to the Legislature to fund free meals for all students.
“It’s difficult to be a learner when you’re hungry. I hope our state legislators will listen and make this worthy investment a priority in support of the state’s 1.1 million students and their families,” Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable said.
Washington should feed all children as a part of guaranteed basic education, just like it pays for math, science, music and athletics, Reykdal said.
Washington has already made progress on closing this gap through the Community Eligibility Provision, which provides free meals to all students in communities with higher poverty levels. That program now covers 47% of schools across the state.
In the budget OSPI just submitted to the Legislature, Reykdal requested $86 million per year for free breakfast and lunch for all students, a total of $173 million for the biennium when adjusted for inflation. If approved by the Legislature, all meals would be free starting in the 2023-24 school year. The funding would cover 21.5 million more lunches and 4.5 million breakfasts statewide.
“This is probably the greatest thing [the Legislature] can do as a policy body this next cycle, in terms of ultimately underwriting the success of young people and families,” Reykdal said.
Help for local students
The Methow Valley School District sent a letter to all families at the start of the school year letting them know that the free meals of the past two years had ended. This year, school breakfast in the Methow is $2, lunch is $3.25, and milk is 50 cents.
A household of four earning about $51,000 per year or less typically qualifies for a meal subsidy, according to the district.
Methow Valley schools have several programs that help families with expenses including meals. “The district is committed to continuing to support students and will always ensure that students have access to food,” the district said in the letter.
Programs and organizations that provide assistance include the InvestED grant fund, the Public School Funding Alliance, the Booster Club, and Winthrop Kiwanis, Liberty Bell secretary Debbie Bair said. “Every year we distribute down to the last few pennies as we strive to take care of current needs — we usually have less than a dollar left in that account” at the end of the year, Bair said.
In addition, a program at The Cove, the social services support center in Twisp, provides meals for the weekend to students in need. Last year, they provided weekend meals to 105 students from all three schools, according to Cove Executive Director Glenn Schmekel.
Paying for meals would not only provide important nutrition for all students, but it would also eliminate districts’ costs in tracking down meal debt and processing eligibility applications, Reykdal said. In some schools, students who owe money are restricted from participating in other programs, he said.
Investing in school meals would make Washington one of the few states to prioritize student nutrition, Reykdal said. This year, California, Massachusetts and Vermont became the first states to provide free meals to all students.
The goal is to end childhood hunger in Washington, state Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane), a sponsor of the school-meal legislation, said at the news conference.
Charging for meals can create a stigma for students who can’t afford them. Because meal subsidies are “viewed as a program for ‘poor’ students, many hungry students opt out of eating for fear of identifying themselves in front of their peers,” OSPI said in its budget proposal.
Reykdal recalls skipping meals in high school because he felt shame about not being able to afford them. Zachary Glenn, a recent graduate from Kennewick High School and a representative to the school board there who participated in the press conference, said the fact that his high school provided free meals for all students meant students ate when they were hungry, not only when they could afford it.
The White House is holding a conference on hunger, nutrition and health this week. One of the panels focuses on supporting children and families to access affordable food in schools and at home.