Updated September 8 in The Olympian by SHAUNA SOWERSBY

All K-12 students in Washington would receive free school lunches under a new proposal announced by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction Thursday morning. “This is very straightforward,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said. “We are asking the Legislature to have Washington state become a state that feeds all children as a part of basic education.” The proposal will be brought to the Legislature during the upcoming session, which begins in January. If passed, students will have free meals at school starting in the 2023-24 school year.

According to Reykdal, the program would cost approximately $86 million per school year for the 1.1 million students in the state. Contextually, he said, education in the state costs about $15 billion every year. He acknowledged that the cost of universal free lunches would be “significant.” “What we’re trying to do is help policymakers understand that there are some investments that maintain what we do, and then there are investments that accelerate learning and accelerate family security, and ultimately reduce child hunger and child poverty,” Reykdal said.

The superintendent said about 47% of students in the state are already eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Additionally, more than half of Washington students attend schools that participate in the Community Eligibility Provision, which means that all students enrolled at schools in low-income areas are eligible for free breakfast and lunch. Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, Sen. T’wina Nobles, D-Fircrest, and recent Kennewick graduate Zachary Glenn joined Reykdal for the news conference. Riccelli and Nobles sponsored legislation during the session last year that expanded access to free meals.

Riccelli noted Thursday that the federal government “had a commitment” to keep students fed during the first couple years of the pandemic. That program has since gone away. “So the question is, why stop there?” Riccelli said. “Do we really need a global pandemic to ensure that we are feeding kids, and that all Washington students and all Washington kids have access to healthy, nutritious food — what they need to learn and grow? And I think the answer is a resounding no — we don’t need a global pandemic to feed kids, and that’s not an excuse in Washington.” Nobles, who represents the area around Joint Base Lewis-McChord, shared her own experience as a military family member and a mother of four who said her family sometimes qualified for free lunches and sometimes didn’t, depending on military pay fluctuations.

“The inconsistency does make it challenging for families because life happens, and sometimes just a small increase in income can make it seem like there’s affordability, when really this extra financial expense can really be a burden,” Nobles said. Nobles added that she doesn’t believe the work should stop there. “We also have to continue to put the pressure on our federal government to put an end to the stigma of food insecurity in schools,” said Nobles. California became the first state to implement universal free lunches for students this school year. The press conference with OSPI was the fourth in the series of nine proposals to the 2023 Legislature that will run through November.