Legislative leaders listen to an audience question at CityClub's 2024 legislative preview
Legislative leaders (from left to right: Senator John Braun, Senator Manka Dhingra, Representative Drew Stokesbary, Representative Joe Fitzgibbon) listen to an audience question at CityClub's 2024 legislative preview on Friday, January 5th, 2024, in Seattle (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Today, in front of a room full of activists, busi­ness exec­u­tives, non­prof­it lead­ers, and engaged cit­i­zens, lead­ers rep­re­sent­ing all four of the Leg­is­la­ture’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can cau­cus­es visu­al­ly indi­cat­ed that they sup­port mak­ing no cost school meals tru­ly uni­ver­sal, as many oth­er states have done in the last year, but which the Wash­ing­ton State Leg­is­la­ture failed to get done in the 2023 session.

It was by far the bright­est moment of City­Club’s 2024 Leg­isla­tive Pre­view, which took place at the Colum­bia Tow­er Club from noon to just after 1:30 PM.

House Major­i­ty Leader Joe Fitzgib­bon (D), House Minor­i­ty Leader Drew Stokes­bary (R), Sen­ate Deputy Major­i­ty Leader Man­ka Dhin­gra (D, an NPF board­mem­ber) and Sen­ate Minor­i­ty Leader John Braun (R) all raised green cards when co-mod­er­a­tor Drew Mikkelsen of KING5 asked them about free lunch­es for K‑12 in the “light­ning round” of the leg­isla­tive preview.

The bipar­ti­san audi­ence imme­di­ate­ly broke out in cheers and applause upon see­ing that the entire pan­el was sup­port­ive of no cost, uni­ver­sal school meals.

Watch the moment by click­ing play in the video below:

Get­ting no cost school meals fund­ed for all Wash­ing­ton ele­men­tary pupils is one of the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute’s top leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ties for 2024, so we are very heart­ened to see this “Four Cor­ners” sup­port. Leg­is­la­tors allo­cat­ed mon­ey to pro­vide some stu­dents’ meals at no cost last year, but left the job undone, while oth­er states got across the fin­ish line, like Minnesota.

In 2023, NPI’s research found that close to two-thirds of like­ly Wash­ing­ton State vot­ers sup­port mak­ing no cost school meals uni­ver­sal. We released our find­ing last March; here’s the ques­tion we asked and the respons­es 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?


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

Chris Reyk­dal’s team has renewed their pri­or request of state leg­is­la­tors to make no cost school meals uni­ver­sal, at least for stu­dents in ele­men­tary, explain­ing: “Hun­gry stu­dents can­not focus ful­ly on learn­ing. While Wash­ing­ton has made great strides in expand­ing access to free school meals, the state must con­tin­ue invest­ing in feed­ing stu­dents until meals with no out-of-pock­et costs is just part of the school day for all students.”

“As part of the agency’s long-term goal, the Office of Super­in­ten­dent of Pub­lic Instruc­tion (OSPI) requests fund­ing to pro­vide nutri­tious school meals to all of Washington’s ele­men­tary school stu­dents. Fund­ing will sup­ple­ment fed­er­al reim­burse­ment and cov­er costs for schools who are not eli­gi­ble to par­tic­i­pate in fed­er­al uni­ver­sal meal options to ensure every ele­men­tary-aged stu­dent has the same opportunity.”

“Under this pro­pos­al, state fund­ing will cov­er the cost of break­fast and lunch that would nor­mal­ly be paid for by the fam­i­lies of stu­dents who aren’t eli­gi­ble for free or reduced-price meals,” OSPI’s for­mal request — known as a deci­sion pack­age in leg­isla­tive par­lance — adds. “School meals are fund­ed on a reim­burse­ment basis, mean­ing fund­ing is only pro­vid­ed for meals served to stu­dents. Specif­i­cal­ly, state funds would pay the dif­fer­ence between the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (USDA) Free Rate and the USDA Paid Rate. This sup­ple­men­tal reim­burse­ment would be paid to school dis­tricts in place of receiv­ing mon­ey from families.”

“If the Leg­is­la­ture invests in this pro­pos­al, Washington’s youngest learn­ers will be able to rely on a nutri­tious break­fast and lunch each day as part of their learn­ing expe­ri­ence. Along with the finan­cial sup­port to fam­i­lies, free meals for all also elim­i­nates the stig­ma around school meals. His­tor­i­cal­ly, there has been a stig­ma around par­tic­i­pa­tion in school meal pro­grams, espe­cial­ly break­fast. Viewed as a pro­gram for ‘poor’ stu­dents, many hun­gry stu­dents opt out of eat­ing for fear of iden­ti­fy­ing them­selves in front of their peers.”

That stig­ma will go away if the cost is cov­ered for all ele­men­tary pupils’ meals.

And, school dis­tricts would be freed of an admin­is­tra­tive burden:

“Addi­tion­al­ly, when meals are free for all stu­dents, dis­tricts don’t need to spend resources on track­ing and col­lect­ing meal debts. Con­tact­ing fam­i­lies and col­lect­ing mon­ey for meal charges takes a sig­nif­i­cant amount of time and con­tributes to a neg­a­tive expe­ri­ence between fam­i­lies and schools. Pro­vid­ing school meals at no cost to the stu­dent or their fam­i­ly elim­i­nates this problem.”

Read the deci­sion pack­age in its entire­ty below.

Deci­sion pack­age on no cost uni­ver­sal school meals

Mak­ing sure kids don’t go hun­gry while elim­i­nat­ing a form of red tape? This is some­thing every Wash­ing­ton­ian ought to be able to get behind.

Let’s make it hap­pen in the 2024 ses­sion. Wash­ing­ton is a wealthy, afflu­ent state, and our plan of gov­ern­ment requires that we amply pro­vide for the edu­ca­tion of our youth. We can­not afford to keep shirk­ing our para­mount duty.

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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