Students enrolled in Department of Defense schools overseas will receive free meals starting Nov. 2, in meal programs that are operated by the military exchange services.

There are currently more than 47,000 students who will qualify, based on their enrollment in 111 Department of Defense Education Activity schools in Europe, the Pacific, Cuba and those located overseas attending the DoDEA Virtual School.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently granted a waiver to DoD School Food authorities to provide free school meals through June 30, 2021, according to an announcement by the Army & Air Force Exchange Service. Those USDA-approved School Food authorities are AAFES, Navy Exchange Service Command, and Marine Corps Community Services. The meals are subsidized by the Department of Agriculture and by DoDEA. DoDEA and other DoD officials joined in the effort to request the waiver to allow the free meals.

The free meals will apply to meals at participating schools and at grab-and-go locations. Participants must have a student ID number through the Department of Defense Education Activity, and a student meal account through AAFES, Navy Exchange or Marine Corps Community Service. Parents don’t have to take any action to receive free meals for students with an established school meal program account; those whose children don’t have an account should create an account in advance for their children at their local exchange customer service.

Students enrolled in the DoDEA Virtual School also qualify, as long as they have a DoDEA student ID and a student meal account, said Chris Ward, a spokesman for AAFES. AAFES operates the largest overseas school lunch management program, providing about 2.5 million school lunches each year to children at 80 DoD schools in Europe and the Pacific.

School lunches for students in grades K through 5 normally cost $3.25; for those in grades 6 through 12, lunch costs $3.50. It also applies to breakfast, which costs $1.75, at schools that participate in the school breakfast program.

Parents who already purchased meals for Nov. 2 and beyond will receive credits to the appropriate student meal program account, in the case of AAFES programs. The credits don’t apply to adult meals, second meals, a la carte items or “lunch plus” purchases. While parents can ask for a refund for the meals they’ve already purchased in advance, Ward said, parents should consider leaving some of the funds in the meal account to cover any “lunch plus" or a la carte purchases.

This initiative is related to a USDA waiver that allows summer meal program operators in the U.S. to continue serving free meals to all children into the fall months, through as late as Dec. 31. The flexibilities will help ensure that children have access to nutritious food as the country recovers from the pandemic, regardless of what the situation is on the ground with their school. Besides the funding, the flexibilities allow parents to pick up meals for their children. Congress has appropriated funding for the initiative.

USDA doesn’t consider Guam as overseas, so they aren’t under this particular waiver, but will use the waiver for schools in the continental U.S. The DoDEA schools in Puerto Rico fall under the guidelines of the Puerto Rico Department of Education, as do DoDEA schools located on installations in the U.S.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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