RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jillian Balow, is encouraging Virginia families to submit free meal applications to local schools.

Virginia is expanding eligibility for free meals during the 2022-2023 school year through funding provided by the General Assembly in the state budget. 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, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

Emergency federal flexibility that allowed free meals for all students during the pandemic expired at the end of the 2021-2022 school year. So, moving forward, many Virginia schools will now require applications and use family income to determine eligibility for free, reduced-price or paid meals.

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

Students are automatically eligible for free meals if anyone in their household receives benefits such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations or Medicaid. Schools will notify families if a child is automatically eligible.

More than 525,000 students qualified for free meals in Virginia when data was last collected in 2019. The new eligibility means approximately 64,500 more kids can access free meals.

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. Families can contact their local school divisions to see if they are a part of the program.

“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,” said VDOE School Nutrition Director Sandy Curwood in the press release. “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,”

Filling out a free form may help families qualify for additional benefits including discounted exam fees, college applications and scholarship opportunities. according to the announcement.  

“School meals are critical to supporting academic success and well-being,” said Sarah Steely, Director of No Kid Hungry Virginia, in a satement. “We are grateful to all school nutrition staff who work hard to fuel our students’ minds and bodies.”

Families can reach out to their local school nutrition department with questions related to the free meal application form.