Washington’s top education official is calling on the state to provide school meals for all students starting in 2023. 

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal announced Thursday a pitch for the Legislature to ensure all students receive meals at no cost, after federal pandemic-era meal waivers that allowed any student to eat free of charge expired at the start of this school year. 

The proposal would require the Legislature to invest $86 million a year — or $173 million for the state’s next two-year budget — to pay for meals for all students, though that number could change with rising food costs. Reykdal said it’s a vital investment to help accelerate student learning and reduce child hunger and poverty. “This is probably the greatest thing they could do as a policy body this next cycle in terms of ultimately underwriting the success of young people and families,” he said. 

Under the plan, Washington would join a handful of other states, including California, Vermont and Massachusetts, that aim to provide universal meals in K-12 schools beyond the federal waivers, or are moving to do so permanently. 

According to the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s office, roughly half of Washington’s students already attend schools that qualify for what’s called a Community Eligibility Provision: a federal program that provides free meals to all students in a school where poverty rates exceed a certain threshold. Lawmakers passed a bill last year requiring all of the state’s eligible schools to participate in the federal program. 

Reykdal’s plan would cover meals for roughly 330,000 students in the state who don’t go to a community-eligible school or don’t already qualify for free and reduced lunch.