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Washington State News

WA Bill Provides Free School Meals, But Worker Shortage is Hurdle

Eric Tegethoff, Producer | Public News Service

A measure in the Washington State Legislature would provide free school meals to K-12 students, but nutrition service workers are worried they are not being considered.

The American Federation of Teachers of Washington represents kitchen workers and is supportive of the bill, but the union said lawmakers also need to ensure there is enough staff to provide the meals.

Kristine Bengochea, kitchen manager for the Northshore School District in King and Snohomish counties, said staffing is a key component of the effort.

“With this new bill coming up, we are so concerned with how many actual workers there will be available to feed all the children,” Bengochea noted.

Bengochea pointed out her kitchen has about nine workers and serves 300-400 students daily. The measure is meant to extend a federal policy from the pandemic, which allowed all students to receive meals. The office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, which requested the legislation, did not respond to a request for comment.

Based on the pandemic, AFT Washington expects the number of students it feeds to double from before COVID-19. Bengochea recalled the pandemic was a hard experience for many workers.

“We burned out so quickly with the workers that we had, and this year the workers have either retired early or just didn’t come back,” Bengochea explained. “We’re afraid that’s going to happen again with this bill coming out.”

The Committee on Early Learning and K-12 Education passed the measure this week. The House version is scheduled for an executive session in the Committee on Education today.