Free meals are the popular norm for many Yakima County schools, as state looks to expand program – Yakima Herald-Republic

Kids in Yesenia Sanchez’s kindergarten class rub in hand sanitizer as they go to grab school lunches Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Zillah, Wash.
School lunches sit on a table in Yesenia Sanchez’s kindergarten classroom Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Zillah, Wash.
Kids eat lunch from home or from school in Yesenia Sanchez’s kindergarten class Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Zillah, Wash.
Kids in Yesenia Sanchez’s kindergarten class grab milk to go with their lunches Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Zillah, Wash.
Kids eat lunch in Yesenia Sanchez’s kindergarten class Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Zillah, Wash.
Yesenia Sanchez hands out napkins to her kindergarten class during lunch Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Zillah, Wash.
Kids in Yesenia Sanchez’s kindergarten class rub in hand sanitizer as they go to grab school lunches Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Zillah, Wash.
Kids in Yesenia Sanchez’s kindergarten class grab milk to go with their lunches Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Zillah, Wash.
Kids eat lunch in Yesenia Sanchez’s kindergarten class Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Zillah, Wash.
Parents and grandparents waiting to pick up students recently at Hilton Elementary School in Zillah said they support universal free school meals. They each had their reasons.
It lifts a possible financial burden. The meals are healthy. Kids can focus better when they’re not hungry. No students are singled out if they all have access.
Or as parent Carlos Santacruz put it plainly, “You can’t say no to free.”
The federal government covered the cost of school meals during the early pandemic, making them free for all students. But that coverage ended this year.
Many area students also have benefited from the Community Eligibility Provision program, a nationwide program that allows schools and districts to provide free school meals to all kids. Earlier this year, Washington state expanded the number of schools that qualify for the program. Zillah was one of the districts that qualified and will provide free school meals for students for at least the next four years.
The program gives schools a glimpse into what things might look like if all school meals were free.
In September, Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal called for the Legislature to permanently fund free school meals. Washington would follow states like California, Vermont and Massachusetts in providing free meals for all students.
School lunches sit on a table in Yesenia Sanchez’s kindergarten classroom Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Zillah, Wash.
The Community Eligibility Provision allows schools or districts with a high number of low-income students to provide breakfast and lunch at no-cost to all students. Schools are then reimbursed for the cost.
Schools must meet a certain threshold of students who automatically qualify for free meals. These include students whose families use aid programs, like the supplemental nutrition assistance program.
Several districts in Yakima County have been CEP for years, even before the pandemic.
Yakima School District, the area’s largest, has about 16,000 students. Last school year, over 80% were considered low income, according to data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. The district has been CEP since 2014, district communications officer Kirsten Fitterer said.
Grandview, Granger, Mabton, Mt. Adams, Sunnyside, Toppenish, Union Gap and Wapato school districts have all been CEP districts for years.
Nora Flores is the food services director for the Toppenish School District, which has been CEP since 2014 and recently renewed its status. CEP status lasts for four years before schools or districts must re-apply.
In the district of about 4,400 kids, about 67% of students qualify for free meals, even if Toppenish were not CEP, Flores said. But in her experience, almost all students eat the meals provided by the school.
“I rarely see any lunch bags packed that students eat in the cafeteria, and I visit pretty often,” she said.
Kids eat lunch from home or from school in Yesenia Sanchez’s kindergarten class Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Zillah, Wash.
A bill passed earlier year by the Washington Legislature lowered the threshold for the percentage of students that had to qualify for free lunch for a school or district to take part in the CEP program. OSPI estimated that 860 new schools would be eligible for CEP status.
Under the new guidelines, East Valley, Selah and Zillah school districts qualified for the CEP program this school year. Collectively they serve about 8,000 students.
Stephine Burkett, the food service director for East Valley, said the high school has seen a jump in the number of lunches it serves since meals became free for all students.
Pre-pandemic, East Valley served about 350 lunches a day to high schoolers. Last month, it averaged 520 lunches a day, but it could reach over 600, depending on the popularity of the meal, Burkett said. The school has about 1,000 students.
The elementary and middle schools have seen more modest increases in lunches served, but breakfast significantly increased in popularity after the district became CEP, she said.
Burkett reached out to Flores when East Valley transitioned to CEP, because Flores had experience with the program. If the state does fund free school meals for all students, hundreds more schools would be in a similar situation.
Flores said her advice to districts new to the program is to try not to feel overwhelmed with all the paperwork, requirements, and logistics. She also recommended food service workers remember that at the end of the day, what matters is that they get to feed more kids.
Burkett recommended that schools new to the free meals program be willing to embrace change.
“This is exciting news and be ready to adjust your program,” she said.
At East Valley, her department had to hire more staff and change food serving lines, to distribute more meals.
Flores and Burkett voiced support for expanding free school meals statewide.
“I think every student should have a free meal,” Flores said. “And I think it just is better for the education of our kids overall. So, I think that’s a good step forward.”
Yesenia Sanchez hands out napkins to her kindergarten class during lunch Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Zillah, Wash.
Zillah parents and grandparents expressed approval for the free meals program — the one in place and the proposed plan.
Marcie Scott has two children at Zillah schools and her family qualified for free meals even before the pandemic. Living in a one-income household, the free meals help her stretch her budget to other areas. That’s become even more important with recent high inflation.
She felt good about Zillah expanding no-cost meals to include all its students.
“A lot of food prices keep going up instead of back down, so that’ll help a lot of families,” she said.
Sadie McDermot, who has two kids at Hilton Elementary School, echoed Scott’s appreciation for the program. She said means less stress at the grocery store. She also welcomed the fact that school meals have health standards they have to follow. Otherwise, her kids would lobby for junk food in a packed lunch, she said.
Bob Rumsey, who has a granddaughter at Hilton, also expressed approval for free school meal programs. He considered them an equalizing force among kids. No student needs be singled out for getting the free school meals and everybody gets the same food.
He said he was in favor of expanding the free meals program to be statewide and considered it a good use of his tax dollars.
Zillah grandmother Evelyn Murray is a retired cook for the Sunnyside School District. She said that when she worked as a cook, she saw many students who could not afford to eat. And when a child is hungry, it is hard for them to focus and learn, she said.
She was in favor of the proposal to fund meals at no cost to students.
“I honestly hope that it passes because there are a lot of students out there going through that,” she said.
Contact Vanessa Ontiveros at [email protected].
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