‘It’s a huge impact’: New law will offer more Washington students free meals at school

SPOKANE VALLEY, Wash. — When students get a free meal at school, a big load is lifted off some family’s shoulders. A new Washington law will help more students eat for free.

A federal program run by the USDA pays for free meals for certain schools. The program is called the Community Eligibility Provisions.

“How it affects East Valley is that seven out of our eight schools now qualify for CEP, which means over 3,000 students will be able to access free lunch starting next school year,” said Jennifer Witting, the East Valley School District Nutrition Services Director.

Prior to House Bill 1878, 62.5-percent of kids at a specific school had to be eligible for the program.

“The community eligibility program is based on data that they already have whether kids are on WIC, SNAP, housing subsidies — among other things,” said Spokane Representative Marcus Riccelli, the bill’s sponsor.

The federal data determines the school’s percentage. With the new law, only 40-percent of students have to be eligible to qualify. If a school meets that threshold, then every student at the school, regardless of the family’s income, can get free meals. Paperwork would be limited for families to fill out.

“We know working families are struggling right now, so this means the whole school that has these metrics will get free breakfast and free lunch,” Riccelli said.

As long as the state pays for it, the bill will stay in effect. Riccelli says $44 million is allocated in the budget for the expansion, which the legislature is voting on Wednesday night.

Riccelli says previous legislation pertaining to the program didn’t include high schools and this new law changes that.

With the program expansion, the difference it’ll make for schools, like East Valley High, is huge.

“People are still recovering. People are still trying to pull it together, so with this new House bill passing, it just takes that hurdle away for so many families,” Witting said.

The law couldn’t come at a better time for families. Last year, Congress approved a waiver to provide free meals for everyone — regardless of income. It’s set to expire on June 30, meaning students eligible for reduced meals would have to start paying again.

“I don’t think that our kids can thrive if they’re hungry,” Riccelli explained. “We know they’re not going to do well in school, but we know they’re also not going to stay healthy.”

The representative hopes by providing free food for an entire school, it will get rid of the stigma of having a no-cost meal.

“Every kid deserves nutrition and healthy lunches. I think having that stigma is just another added burden,” Riccelli said.

In the bill, Riccelli says if one school qualifies but another doesn’t, a district can group the schools together and qualify that way. The district can also do it as a whole as another option.

“It’s a huge impact. It’s a huge impact for families,” Witting said. “It’s something very helpful for a lot of families.”

Riccelli says with the law, it’ll help about 12,000 Spokane County students and 92,000 across the state.

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