The Virginia Department of Education is reminding families who qualify for free student meals that they need to apply for the program for the 2022-2023 school year. Pandemic-era benefits providing free meals for all students expired at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, meaning that otherwise-qualifying families could face charges for meals starting on the first day of school.

“School meals are important sources of nutrition for students and help reduce food insecurity in the Commonwealth,” Superintendent of Public Education Jillian Balow said in a Monday VDOE newsletter. “I urge all families to apply to determine if they qualify. Filling out an application is simple and takes less than 15 minutes.”

Virginia provides state-funded free meals for families at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s an expansion using additional funding budgeted by the Virginia General Assembly from previous free-meal eligibility for families at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level. Under the expanded eligibility, a four-person family earning $51,615 would qualify for the program.

The VDOE reports that about 64,500 more kids will be eligible for free meals under the expansion; when data was last collected in 2019, over 525,000 students qualified.

Students in families that receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, or Medicaid are automatically eligible for free meals, and schools will notify families if they are automatically eligible. Additionally, some districts are part of a program providing free meals to all students; families in those districts don’t need to apply.

Families not participating in those federal aid programs where the district doesn’t provide free meals to all students need to speak with their local school nutrition department to apply for free meals.

“It’s more important than ever for families to apply for free school meals. If no application is on file, students will need to pay for meals on the first day of school and may start to accrue meal debt,” VDOE School Nutrition Director Sandy Curwood said in the newsletter. “And the good news is, if you qualify, free meals are seamless. Students will access their meals in the cafeteria with a pin number or a lunch card, with no overt identification. Please apply now.”

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network.  Email tips to [email protected].