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MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Hot meals dished out in school cafeterias don’t have to cost parents nearly as much.

Lunch last year at Misawa elementary schools cost $2.05, while high school students paid $2.20 a meal.

Through the free and reduced lunch program, families with school-age children can save $300 to $400 a child per school year.

But last year, only one of out of every three Misawa schoolchildren received this benefit, said 35th Mission Support Group school liaison officer Rebecca Duncan, and she believes more qualified families are out there.

“I think parents automatically assume they won’t qualify because their income is too high,” she said.

Not necessarily true, says Duncan: Last year, 90 percent of reduced-lunch benefit recipients were E-5s, E-6s and E-7s, as were a few officers with large families. Cost-of-living allowance (COLA) and overseas housing allowance (OHA) are not factored into household income. Household size also is considered.

For instance, a family of three with an annual income of $35,317 would qualify for reduced lunches — which are 40 cents a pop. A family of six making $40,066 a year would qualify for free lunches.

Duncan thinks some people may not apply because of the perceived stigma of the benefit. But it’s a transparent program with no colored coupons, she said.

Like the rest of their peers, program members open an Army and Air Force Exchange Service meal account, and when they buy lunch they enter in their personal identification number.

“The amount of money taken out of their account is done behind the scenes,” Duncan said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages the federal program, reimburses AAFES, she said. The idea is to ensure “kids get a least one hot meal a day,” Duncan said, “because even on military bases, sometimes that’s not the case.”

Program applications are available starting Aug. 1 at the base exchange cashier’s cage, Misawa schools’ main offices, and the Airman and Family Readiness Center. Or contact Duncan at schools.officer@misawa.af.mil to receive an application by e-mail. Families need only submit the most recent leave and earnings statement from all regular household wage earners. Families who qualified last year must reapply.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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