State leaders encourage parents to send applications to schools for free meals

This comes as funding from the state budget expands eligibility for students
Published: Aug. 24, 2022 at 6:31 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - As thousands of students across Virginia go back to class, state leaders are encouraging families to send in their free meal applications.

This comes as a pandemic-era policy that opened the door to serve students free breakfast and lunch expires. Now, many Virginia schools will require applications and use family income to determine eligibility for free, reduced-price or paid meals.

Through state budget funding from the General Assembly, Virginia is able to expand eligibility for free meals during the 2022-2023 school year.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, students with families at or below 185% of the federal poverty level are eligible for free meals. Previously, students from families with an income at or below 130% of the poverty level were eligible for free meals.

“As kids go back to school this year, we know that their most reliably consistent source of quality nutrition is at school,” said Eddie Oliver with the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.

Before the pandemic, VDOE reported more than 525,000 students qualified for free meals in Virginia. Under the new eligibility guidelines, 64,500 more kids can get access to these free meals.

Oliver said this expansion comes at a time when food banks are seeing more families asking for help, especially as inflation hits the shelves.

“Having access to school meals for families who need it is really critical and is the most important thing for the family’s overall food security,” he said. “We’ve got grocery prices up at least 10 percent and for some staple items, it’s higher than that and so families are still struggling. The pandemic hit a lot of people hard initially, but there’s still a big recovery still ahead of us.”

Oliver also adds the Federation of Virginia Food Banks is also working on expanding partnerships with schools across Virginia to help bridge the gap for students who don’t have access to free meals in school.

“So that they have access to staple grocery items, we have backpack programs, after-school meal programs,” Oliver said. “There’s lots of ways we can provide wrap-around support for those families as well.”

VDOE also adds filling out a free form may help families qualify for additional benefits to include discounted exam fees and college applications, and extracurricular and scholarship opportunities.

Officials also add many Virginia schools and divisions use a program called the Community Eligibility Provision to serve free meals to all students, in which case free meal applications are not collected.

Students in households who receive benefits from several different programs, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations or Medicaid, will be automatically eligible for free meals.

State leaders also urge families to reach out to their local school nutrition department with questions related to the meal application form.