Washington’s public schools must do their part to ensure children from low-income families have access to healthy meals during school hours. Our state government recently did its part, passing House Bill 1878. It increases the number of schools eligible for federal funding to provide — at no cost — free breakfast and lunch to students.
House Bill 1878’s passage will allow 92,000 additional students statewide to access healthy school meals without stigma or financial burden. And a program that ensures all children receive free meals reduces the stigma incurred by low-income children who receive meals while giving parents one less task to prepare their children for the school day.
Combined with Breakfast After the Bell legislation that Gov. Jay Inslee signed in 2018 and which eligible schools will be required to fully implement next year, we can make sure no child goes hungry in Washington state.
Children who have not had enough to eat struggle to learn and thrive. The pandemic has increased the financial challenges that many families face and highlighted deep inequities in our state. United Way and our partners are committed to ending childhood hunger across Washington, and we challenge our community to step up to ensure that students from low-income families have access to healthy school meals.
During the pandemic, when all schools have offered all students free breakfast and lunch, the result has been a lifeline for students and families. We must continue this. House Bill 1878 mandates that eligible schools enroll in the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program if those schools report that 40% of their student body is eligible for free meals. Free meals would be available for all students in such schools, not just those who have filed an application. Schools are not required to collect applications from students, and the legislation allocates significant state funding to ensure that schools can participate without financial risk. The program is available to public, private and tribal schools.
This means that at a time when families are forced to make tough financial decisions about food, fuel and utilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic and 40-year-high inflation rates, eligible school districts have virtually no reason to forego community eligibility.
At United Way of King County, we have launched and supported programs to ensure that school children do not go hungry. We’ve teamed up with school districts across the state to launch the community-eligibility and Breakfast After the Bell programs, which shift breakfast to be part of the school day. Washington state public schools must do their part to ensure that children from low-income families have access to healthy meals during school hours. School districts like Tacoma Public Schools and Tukwila School District have already taken the first steps to expand access to school meals — demonstrating how impactful school meals programs can be.
United Way commends the efforts of our state Legislature, whose actions are a sharp contrast to those of the U.S. Congress, which failed to extend critical Child Nutrition waivers last week. As a result, hungry kids across the country may miss out on more than 95 million meals this summer and many more during the next school year.
Washington state has a historic opportunity to end childhood hunger. Now it is up to school districts and schools to implement these policies in equitable and effective ways. United Way and our partners stand by ready to help.