Lawmakers debating free school meals for all students

SEATTLE — A recently introduced bill would require all public schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to any K-12 student who requests them.

The meals were free of charge during the pandemic, but federal lawmakers didn’t extend the nationwide program, and it ended this fall.

That means about half of all public school students statewide have had to pay for school meals for the first time in more than two years.

If the bill is passed by lawmakers, each public school would be required to provide meals regardless of a student’s eligibility for federally funded free or reduced meals.

About 46% of students in Washington state were eligible for meal waivers in 2021, a 3% increase from the year before.

However, because the federal program ended this school year, there is now a nationwide problem with school lunch debt.

State Superintendent of Schools, Chris Reykdal, spoke about the issue last year and said it would take an additional $86 million in funding to provide universal free school meals.

In Bellevue, school officials say the district has more than $30,000 in unpaid meal charges.