Visualization of NPI's no-cost school meals poll finding
Visualization of NPI's no-cost school meals poll finding (NPI graphic)

More than three in five Wash­ing­ton vot­ers sup­port invest­ing $100 mil­lion in rev­enue per year to enable all stu­dents to have a healthy break­fast and lunch and school with­out fees, regard­less of fam­i­ly income sta­tus, the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute’s most recent statewide sur­vey has found.

64% of 874 like­ly 2024 vot­ers inter­viewed March 7th and 8th by Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Polling for NPI said they strong­ly or some­what sup­port­ed uni­ver­sal no-cost school meals, while a total of 33% said they were strong­ly or some­what opposed.

Only 4% said they were not sure.

Visualization of NPI's no-cost school meals poll finding
Visu­al­iza­tion of NPI’s no-cost school meals poll find­ing (NPI graphic)

State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Mar­cus Ric­cel­li (D‑3rd Dis­trict: Spokane) pro­posed leg­is­la­tion ear­ly this ses­sion at the request of State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Chris Reyk­dal to pro­vide for uni­ver­sal, no-cost school meals, but the bill was amend­ed and scaled back after leg­is­la­tors found out it would cost $100 mil­lion per year to implement.

The oper­at­ing bud­get pro­pos­al unveiled by House Democ­rats today would allo­cate $85 mil­lion to no-cost school meals, which isn’t enough to pro­vide no-cost school meals to all pupils. Our research shows that a huge major­i­ty of vot­ers want the full $100 mil­lion per year appro­pri­at­ed to ensure no kid goes hun­gry at school.

Oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic-run states have done this.

Min­neso­ta has done it:

Sur­round­ed by school chil­dren, teach­ers, advo­cates and pub­lic offi­cials, Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill into law Fri­day to pro­vide break­fasts and lunch­es at no charge to stu­dents at par­tic­i­pat­ing schools. It makes Min­neso­ta the fourth state in the coun­try to do so.

Dur­ing the sign­ing cer­e­mo­ny, Walz told Min­neso­ta par­ents this will ease some of the stress on them.

“If you’re look­ing for good news, this was cer­tain­ly the place to be,” said Walz. “I’m hon­ored and I do think this is one piece of that puz­zle in reduc­ing both child­hood pover­ty and hunger insecurity.”

Lt. Gov. Peg­gy Flana­gan was also at the cer­e­mo­ny. She said this was the most impor­tant thing she’d ever worked on.

Con­necti­cut has done it, at least through the end of the school year:

A bill that would bring back free school lunch­es for stu­dents passed unan­i­mous­ly in both the state House and Sen­ate, and now heads to Gov­er­nor Ned Lam­on­t’s desk for a signature.

The fund­ing for free school lunch­es is part of a big­ger bill [No. 6671] to allo­cate funds to numer­ous state pro­grams for the remain­ing half of the fis­cal year, end­ing June 30, 2023.

New Mex­i­co is doing it:

New Mex­i­co Gov­er­nor Michelle Lujan Grisham is expect­ed today to sign into law Sen­ate Bill 4, which would expand free meals to all pub­lic and char­ter school stu­dents in New Mexico.

It would also allow sov­er­eign nations and pri­vate schools with­in the state to opt in to offer free, high qual­i­ty meals regard­less of income.

As of Mon­day, the free school meals bill was set to become the 25th pro­pos­al to get the governor’s go-ahead.

Law­mak­ers passed more than 200 bills dur­ing the 2023 reg­u­lar ses­sion, which end­ed ear­li­er this month.

But in Wash­ing­ton, cost con­cerns have got­ten in the way of get­ting the job done:

House Speak­er Lau­rie Jink­ins, D‑Tacoma, said last week that the uni­ver­sal pro­gram was like­ly to be a vic­tim of bud­getary constraints.

“They’re going to have to pare that down because I don’t think this is a year that we can afford to prob­a­bly go the whole way on that,” Jink­ins said. “How do we make progress on it even if we’re not able to go the whole way? And that’s going to be, well, it’s high­ly dis­ap­point­ing to me and lots of people.”

Our research is clear: Vot­ers want the Leg­is­la­ture to fig­ure out how to “go the whole way on that” this year. It’s impor­tant. As the food and nutri­tion direc­tor for the Edmonds School Dis­trict, Megan de Vries, told The Seat­tle Times: “What we see is, because of the stig­ma around that one-third of stu­dents who need access to meals, they would rather hang out with the two-thirds that do not require school meals… So we are see­ing kids skip­ping out on school meals.”

Here’s the ques­tion we asked and the answers we received:

QUESTION: The Wash­ing­ton State Super­in­ten­dent of Pub­lic Instruc­tion has pro­posed that school meals be pro­vid­ed at no charge to all Wash­ing­ton stu­dents as part of their basic edu­ca­tion. Dur­ing the first two years of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, waivers from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment allowed all stu­dents to eat free of charge, but those waivers have now expired, which means 330,000 Wash­ing­ton stu­dents and their fam­i­lies must pay for school meals again. The cost to tax­pay­ers to pro­vide meals at no charge to every stu­dent is esti­mat­ed to be near­ly $100 mil­lion per year. Do you strong­ly sup­port, some­what sup­port, some­what oppose, or strong­ly oppose uni­ver­sal K‑12 meals, enabling all stu­dents to have a healthy break­fast and lunch at school with­out fees, regard­less of fam­i­ly income status?

ANSWERS:

  • Sup­port: 64% 
    • Strong­ly sup­port: 42%
    • Some­what sup­port: 22%
  • Oppose: 33%
    • Some­what oppose: 12%
    • Strong­ly oppose: 21%
  • Not sure: 4%

Our sur­vey of 874 like­ly 2024 Wash­ing­ton State vot­ers was in the field from Tues­day, March 7th through Wednes­day, March 8th, 2023.

The poll uti­lizes a blend­ed method­ol­o­gy, with auto­mat­ed phone calls to land­lines (50%) and online answers from cell phone only respon­dents (50%).

It was con­duct­ed by Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Polling for the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute, and has a mar­gin of error of +/- 3.3% at the 95% con­fi­dence interval.

Vot­ers of dif­fer­ent ide­o­log­i­cal ori­en­ta­tions are in favor. More than eight in ten (81%) Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers in Wash­ing­ton sup­port uni­ver­sal school meals, along with 57% of inde­pen­dents. Repub­li­can vot­ers are split: 45% of them favor invest­ing $100 mil­lion to fund uni­ver­sal school meals while 52% are opposed.

All age groups are sup­port­ive. The youngest vot­ers — on whose shoul­ders the fate of our repub­lic ulti­mate­ly rests — are the most enthu­si­as­tic, with 78% sup­port­ive (58% strong­ly sup­port­ive). Vot­ers ages thir­ty to forty-five, the age group who are most like­ly to have young chil­dren, are sup­port­ive by a 2:1 mar­gin, with 67% sup­port­ive (51% strong­ly sup­port­ive). 65% of vot­ers ages forty-six to six­ty-five are sup­port­ive as well. 57% of the old­est vot­ers (65+) are supportive.

All regions of the state are sup­port­ive, too. Urban, sub­ur­ban, and rur­al vot­ers all agree this is a good idea. Here are the num­bers by region:

  • King Coun­ty
    • Sup­port: 75% overall
    • Oppose: 20% overall
    • Not sure: 6%
  • North Puget Sound 
    • Sup­port: 64% overall
    • Oppose: 34% overall
    • Not sure: 2%
  • South Sound
    • Sup­port: 60% overall
    • Oppose: 36% overall
    • Not sure: 4%
  • Olympic Penin­su­la / South­west Washington 
    • Sup­port: 59% overall
    • Oppose: 38% overall
    • Not sure: 3%
  • East­ern and Cen­tral Washington 
    • Sup­port: 56% overall
    • Oppose: 41% overall
    • Not sure: 3%

Wash­ing­ton is a wealthy state and unques­tion­ably has the resources to pro­vide no-cost school meals to every child. If leg­is­la­tors don’t want to fund this pri­or­i­ty with sales tax rev­enue or prop­er­ty tax rev­enue, they can pass a wealth tax — which our research shows two-thirds of vot­ers sup­port — and include uni­ver­sal school meals as one of the ser­vices to even­tu­al­ly be fund­ed with that revenue.

As our ques­tion explained, we already pro­vid­ed no-cost school meals to all kids and fam­i­lies dur­ing an ear­li­er stretch of the pan­dem­ic. We must make that per­ma­nent. Kids strug­gle to learn when they’re hun­gry. Get­ting rid of meal fees will make it eas­i­er for schools to serve nutri­tious break­fasts and lunch­es to their entire stu­dent pop­u­la­tions. It’s the right thing to do and we should get it done this year.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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