Lawmakers are considering a bill requiring all students in Washington state to receive free school meals if they choose. The bill, known as the Washington Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, was introduced by Senator T’wina Nobles and Representative Marcus Riccelli. If passed, the bill would require all schools in the state to provide free breakfast and lunch and classify school meals as a basic aspect of education.
The issue is implementing a policy to provide free school meals for all students. The policy would require all schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to any student who requests it, regardless of their family’s income or ability to pay. Legislators are currently debating this policy’s potential advantages and disadvantages and whether it should be implemented in their jurisdictions.
The Impact of Free School Meals: A closer look at the benefits for students and families
Free school meals for all students have several potential benefits:
- Combatting child hunger and food insecurity: By providing free meals to all students, regardless of their family’s income, the policy would help to ensure that all children have access to nutritious food. This is especially important for children from low-income families who may not have enough food at home.
- Improving student health and academic performance: Well-nourished Children are more likely to be healthy and perform better in school. Studies have shown that students who eat school meals have better academic outcomes, including higher test scores and fewer absenteeism.
- Reducing the financial burden on low-income families: Paying for school meals can be a significant financial burden. By providing free meals to all students, the policy would help to alleviate that burden.
- Encourage students to take advantage of school meal programs. Sometimes students from low-income families are too ashamed to take advantage of free meal programs. Making meals free for all students would remove that barrier.
- Improving school attendance: Hungry Children are less likely to attend a school or to be alert and focused when they are there.
- Improving child development: Proper nutrition is essential for healthy child development, including physical, cognitive and social-emotional growth.
- Encouraging parents to send their children to school: Parents struggling to put food on the table may be less likely to send their children to school if they know they will have to pay for meals. Making meals free for all students would make it easier for these parents to send their children to school.
Arguments against free school meals for all students
There are several arguments against free school meals for all students:
- Costs: Some argue that the policy would be too costly to implement and that there are better ways to allocate limited public resources.
- Personal responsibility and self-sufficiency: Some argue that the policy would discourage personal responsibility and self-sufficiency by providing free meals to students and families who can pay for them.
- Administrative challenges: Some concerns implementing the policy would be administratively challenging and costly for schools and school districts.
- Overcrowding: Some argue that providing free meals to all students would increase the number of students eating in the school cafeteria, leading to overcrowding, longer lines, and longer wait times.
- Food waste: Some argue that providing free meals to all students would lead to more food waste, as some students may not want or be able to eat the meals provided.
- Dependency: Some argue that providing free meals to all students would create dependency on government programs and discourage self-sufficiency
- Quality of food: Some argue that the quality of food served in schools may be lower since the program is free and cannot afford high-quality ingredients.
- Fraud: Some argue that providing free meals to all students would be vulnerable to fraud, as people may falsely claim to be students or falsely claim that their children are students to receive free meals.
Chris Reykdal, the state’s superintendent, has advocated for universal school meals for all Washington students. In the past, he has called on the state legislature to establish a free school meals program and requested an additional $86 million in annual funding to support the initiative.
In recent years, Washington state legislators have worked to improve the state’s school breakfast and lunch program. They have passed several bills and laws to achieve this goal, including:
- Breakfast After the Bell in 2018 (HB 1508), aims to increase student participation in school breakfast programs by ensuring that the meal is served after the school day begins.
- Requiring more schools to participate in the USDA Community Eligibility Program (CEP) in 2020 (HB 2660) allows high percentages of low-income students to provide free meals to all students without collecting individual applications.
- Providing funding to more schools required to participate in CEP as recently as 2022 (HB 1878), which aims to help schools cover the costs of participating in the Community Eligibility Program.
These efforts demonstrate that legislators have been improving access to nutritious meals for students in Washington state. By making breakfast available after the bell, increasing the participation of schools in CEP, and providing funding to schools to help them cover the cost of participating in CEP, legislators have been working to ensure that all students have access to healthy meals.