(The Center Square) – Many students will soon head back to Spokane schools and be able to enjoy breakfast and lunch funded by taxpayers due to a new Washington law.

An expansion of the Community Eligibility Provisions program sponsored by Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, is expected to provide free-to-families meals to more than 12,000 students in Spokane and 92,000 statewide.

Under the new law, only 40% of students have to meet poverty guidelines for a school to qualify. Once that threshold is met, every student at the school, regardless of family income, will have their meals paid for. Paperwork will be limited for families to fill out.

The bill states that the program stays in place only if the state pays for it. This year, the legislature budgeted $44 million to cover the cost of expanding meal provision.

Prior to the passage of House Bill 1878 last spring, 62.5% of students at a specific school had to be eligible for the program funded and run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help families in need.

The state Office of Public Instruction reports that 54% of students in 64 Spokane schools are eligible for the expanded meals program. Most area school districts have a lower percentage of students meeting poverty guidelines for the meals program, but Newport School District has 75% of schools qualifying.

If one school qualifies for the expanded meal program but another doesn’t, the bill allows a district to group schools together and qualify that way.

The new program kicked in as the waiver to provide free meals that were approved last year by Congress was getting ready to expire. Federal legislators approved free meals for all students in 2021 due to continuing economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. That program ended at the end of June, so students eligible for reduced meals would have had to start paying again in the 2022-23 academic year.

“I don’t think that our kids can thrive if they’re hungry,” Riccelli said in a press conference during the spring legislative session. “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 that if every student gets a free meal, it will get rid of the stigma of having a no-cost meal.

“I think having that stigma is just another added burden,” said Riccelli, an advocate for universal free meals.

HB 1878 received bipartisan support, with Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber, R-Republic, joining Riccelli and Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, in sponsorship of the legislation.

Originally published by The Center Square. Republished with permission.

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