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Children enjoy their lunch Friday at Darmstadt Elementary School in Germany. Under new guidelines released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more families, though not necessarily these students, may be eligible for the Free and Reduced Lunch program.
Children enjoy their lunch Friday at Darmstadt Elementary School in Germany. Under new guidelines released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more families, though not necessarily these students, may be eligible for the Free and Reduced Lunch program. (Raymond T. Conway / S&S)

A change this week in eligibility requirements for free- and reduced-priced school lunches means more military families will be eligible for the program. But officials aren’t expecting a huge influx in families coming forward to claim the benefit.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, responsible for setting criteria and management of all public school free- and reduced-lunch programs, has excluded the Family Supplemental Subsistence Allowance, or FSSA, as countable income when determining eligibility, officials said.

But not many servicemembers were collecting the FSSA to begin with.

The FSSA is a Defense Department program started in May 2001 aimed at getting military families off food stamp programs.

In fiscal 2003, only 647 members of the military’s roughly 1.4 million active-duty force collected the FSSA, according to Pentagon figures.

The number of military people on food stamps had steadily declined over the years. In 1991, there were 19,400 servicemembers on food stamps, or nine-tenths of 1 percent of the force. In 2002, the number was 2,084 members on food stamps. The decrease was primarily due to the increases in basic pay and housing allowances, and to a lesser extent to FSSA started a year earlier, Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke said.

The FSSA is a voluntary, nontaxable monthly supplemental allowance, not to exceed $500 a month. Eligibility is based on base pay, household size and housing allowances.

The eligibility change means more families can apply for free or reduced lunches, said John Bohannon, school liaison officer for Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

“This will benefit the military families most in need,” Bohannon said in a statement. “Coupled with the Basic Allowance for Housing exclusion from earlier in the year, this greatly increases the number of families who qualify for the program and saves them more than $300 a year per child.”

The Army and Air Force Exchange Service and Navy Exchange run the school lunch programs on overseas bases.

In general, about 19 percent of the AAFES-provided lunches are free, and 20 percent are sold at the reduced price, said AAFES-Europe spokeswoman Debbie Byerly. In May, the system provided 80,012 free lunches and 139,724 reduced lunches.

At Navy bases worldwide, the exchange provided 73,083 free lunches. Of those, 66,266 were to Europe-based schools. Worldwide, there were 138,358 reduced lunches provided, of which 106,655 were for Europe-based schools, said Kristine Sturkie, spokewoman Navy Exchange Service Command in Virginia Beach, Va.

AAFES charges 40 cents to pupils on the reduced-price plan. Regular prices are $2.05 for pupils kindergarten through sixth grade, and $2.20 for those in seventh through 12th grade. The Navy Exchange charges 50 cents to children on the reduced plan. Regular prices are $2.05 and $2.20 for elementary and high school students, respectively.

The formula for figuring out who is eligible can get complicated, so parents are advised to meet with the school liaison officer to determine if they’re eligible, said Dianne Burrough, the liaison officer at Naples High School, Italy.

As an example, Burrough said, the maximum monthly income that a family of four — two adults and two children — in Naples can earn to qualify for the free lunch is $2,412. The maximum monthly salary to qualify for the reduced-lunch price is $3,432.

Families can apply for the free and reduced-lunch program anytime during the school year by contacting the school liaison office. A family not eligible at the start of the school year may reapply if income circumstances change, such as a decrease in household income or increase in household size.

Additional information, including on the Department of Defense Student Meal Program, is available at the Department of Defense Education Activity Headquarters Logistics Division Web site: www.dodea.edu/log/logistics/isp.htm.

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