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With new eligibility, which Virginia families will qualify for free school meals?

Healthier School Meals
Posted at 4:28 PM, Aug 23, 2022

RICHMOND, Va. -- For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, some Virginia families may have to pay for their child's school meals.

"Now going back to the traditional setting, that flexibility is no longer available through the federal government, so we've gone back to the traditional meal service, which means that families need to qualify for free or reduced-price meals," said Dr. Sandy Curwood, the Virginia Department of Education's School Nutrition Programs Director.

Virginia schools will now require applications and use the family's income to determine eligibility. However, due to extra funding in the state budget, an additional 65,000 students across the Commonwealth will qualify for free meals.

"State legislation has now approved funding in the budget or this year and the next, to fill the gap between the cost of a reduced-price meal and a free meal. So those students that previously qualified for reduced, which means they had to pay a portion of the costs, are now eligible for free," Curwood said.

New eligibility allows families at or below 185% of the federal poverty line to be eligible for free meals.

According to the 2022 Poverty Guidelines from theDepartment of Health and Human Services, that means that students in a household of two that makes $33,874 per year or less qualify. For a household of three, $42,606, and for a household of four, $51,338.

Previously, eligible families had to be at or below 130% of the federal poverty line.

This expansion, including the 84 districts across the Commonwealth that provide free meals to any student regardless of household income, as a part of the Community Eligibility Provision program, means roughly 600,000 Virginia students will not have to pay for their school meals.

Curwood said every district should have an online application for families to utilize before the school year. If no application is on file, a student could start to accrue meal debt as early as the first day of school. Curwood said there is a 10-day grace period once an application is filed.

In an interview with CBS6, Curwood said applying not only saves families money but also saves schools money, too.

"There's actually a state law in Virginia that requires meals to be served to all students, so we promise to feed your child and we request that you fill out the meal application so that the school can be reimbursed for those meals," she said. "If those schools aren't reimbursed for those meals, then it comes from other funding from the schools. We don't want that to be a burden on the schools or take away from education when that funding is available to the schools through the federal program."

However, just because a family received free meals throughout the last two years through pandemic-related meal programs, they are not guaranteed to be eligible this year.

Eddie Oliver, the Executive Director of the Virginia Federation of Food Banks, is encouraging all families to apply to potentially alleviate the burden of buying food.

"Inflation is hitting a lot of family's budgets hard," Oliver said. "Grocery prices are up at least 10%, even more for some staple grocery items. Food banks, we're starting to see a lot more people coming into our pantries for food assistance. It's just everyday items becoming more and more expensive to make ends meet."

Both Curwood and Oliver agree having nutritional food sets students up for success.

"It is as foundational to education as reading and writing, because if you’re hungry, then you’re not going to be able to learn," Curwood.

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