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Washington taxpayers to pay more for school meals as program expands

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(The Center Square) – More school districts across Washington are providing free school meals for students, both breakfast and lunch, at no cost to families.

Other districts will be providing meals in the next year or so as universal school meal programs are phased in.

But as the saying goes, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

Which begs the question, where is the funding for universal meal programs coming from, how much of that food is going to waste, and at what cost to taxpayers?

Washington taxpayers will shell out $33 million this fiscal year for school meal programs, and Washington lawmakers have budgeted nearly $80 million for fiscal 2025.

A spokesperson from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction spoke about how the process works.

“Every month, each school district reports to OSPI how many meals they served and then we reimburse them for the meals,” Katy Payne told The Center Square. “In schools with universal meals under the recent legislative efforts, state funding supplements the federal reimbursement to bring every meal up to the highest federal reimbursement level.”

Asked if Washington taxpayers are spending more to fund universal meal programs than the prior model of only covering meals for low-income students, Payne said that data couldn’t be produced in a timely manner. She did stress the importance of universal feeding programs, claiming they also reduce overall taxpayer costs over time.

OSPI cited other benefits of universal meal programs.

“It creates administrative efficiencies for nutrition staff who are no longer spending time tracking and collecting meal debts,” Payne said. “With that new capacity, nutrition staff have more time to spend on activities like sourcing local foods, creating school gardens, and establishing methods for reducing and managing food waste.”

In the Auburn School District, Child Nutrition Services Executive Director Janis Campbell-Aikens said the district is constantly trying to balance nutritional needs with what kids will actually eat to avoid wasting food.

“We do our best at trying to find what kids will like, and sometimes it takes a little trial and error,” she explained. “If we try it and they don’t like it, we learn that pretty fast.”

The Auburn School District has 24 schools and all but one has a full-service kitchen.

This is the second school year that the district has provided free meals for all students.

“We do a mix of things from like a speed-scratch type of production where you have some of the ingredients prepared for us, and then we add fresh ingredients,” Campbell-Aikens said, adding that the district’s high schools are serving anywhere from 600 to 1000 meals a day.

“There are some things that are heat-and-serve, but we do as much cooking from scratch as we can,” she continued. “We are fortunate being on the community eligibility program and that our state has decided to supplement the federal funding.”

Campbell-Aikens explained they count all the meals served and get reimbursed a specific amount for each meal.

“And that’s a combination of state and federal funding we get,” she said.

What about the waste when students don’t like what’s being offered?

“We do the best we can to forecast how many meals we are going to need, and the kitchen managers get pretty good at knowing what entrees are more popular, and they will produce just what they think they’ll need,” Campbell-Aikens noted.

Extra food doesn’t always go to waste.

“Sometimes we can cool it properly and save it, but not always,” Campbell-Aikens said. “Sometimes we can repurpose the food in a different way, but there is unfortunately a little bit of waste at times.”

She went on to note, “We do have the share tables in many, but not all of the schools. The kids do have to select some form of a fruit or vegetable and sometimes they’ll say they won’t eat it anyway, so that type of thing will often go to the share table.”

The share table is open for anyone to take what they want, if the packaging has not been opened.

One of the reasons for potential food waste is students having other options like a student store, where they can purchase what they want, including things like quesadillas, cookies, and energy drinks, all items sold at Auburn Riverside High School’s student store.

Campbell-Aikens said DECA, formerly Distributive Education Clubs of America, programs and other groups that sell food in student stores are supposed to follow nutrition standards, “but it’s difficult to enforce those standards.”

The Seattle School District provided some statistics on school meals.

A district spokesperson said the district provides free meals at 51 out of their 111 programs and prepares 20,000 meals for students every school day.

The district started providing free meals during the COVID-19 pandemic, when buildings were closed and meals were made available for pickup at various community locations.

A recent study from King County reported the average school throws away or composts 30 pounds of food a day.

In a 2019 study of school cafeteria waste as reported in the Nevada Independent found that 27% to 53% of the food served in an American school cafeteria was thrown away.

Another study estimates American schools waste approximately 530,000 tons of food annually — about 39 pounds of food waste and 29 cartons of milk per student per year — costing $1.7 billion nationally.

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