Families worried about school lunch prices as inflation soars

TULSA, Okla. — Families are less than two months away from the 2022-2023 school year starting, and the federal waivers that made breakfast and lunch free for all students, regardless of income, expired last week.

Before the pandemic, some school districts offered free meals to all students, but for many Green Country school districts, that wasn’t the case. Families, like pre-pandemic, can apply for free or reduced lunch. Those who don’t qualify will have to pay for lunches daily.

For families like Jazmine Polkowski, she’s worried about how she’ll pay for her children’s school lunches come next month since the federal relief that paid for lunches during COVID expired.

“Because many families, like mine in particular, [don’t] quality for the free or reduced lunch,” she said.

Before COVID-19 Polkowski said paying for lunches and groceries wasn’t a problem. But now, she said inflation is hitting her pockets hard.

“I’m spending double at the grocery store and all of my bills have gone up 25 percent, if not 50, including gas prices,” she said. “I don’t think I can send my kids to school with any nutritious.”

The Free School Meals Program started in March 2020 when Congress called the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to issue free food waivers for all children, regardless of income, throughout the pandemic. The program officially ended June 30, 2022, but Congress extended it for summer programs.

With inflation, even school districts like Union are feeling it. Lisa Griffin, the director of Child Nutrition for the district said just like everyone at home, they’re feeling the rising costs.

“We’re buying food just like the families, and we’ve had inflation anywhere from 16 to 60 percent increase in our food,” Griffin said. “We’ve had decreased labor because we can’t find people to work, and so people that are working, we’re having to pay more to get them. So that’s impacting our labor budget, and our supplies have gone up. Of course our fuel cost for transporting food to our schools.”

Supply chain issues is another obstacle that Griffin said they’re already preparing for.

“Where we didn’t get food and supplies that we needed in order to avoid the higher prices that are coming down the road, we have been buying frozen goods and canned goods and storing them away so that we have four to five months worth of food,” Griffin said.

Griffin said Union’s lunch prices haven’t changed in 10 years. For elementary kids, it’s $2.25, middle school and 9th grade it’s $2.50, and for high school it’s $2.95 per lunch. Lunches include: fruit, vegetables, a grain, an entrée, and a milk.

She also explained meals at school are cheaper than what you’re paying in the store.

“We’d really like the students to eat with us because I think it’ll help families with their budgets as well,” she said.

Griffin is encouraging families, even if they don’t qualify for free or reduced lunches, to still apply because it allows more state funding to districts which can help with teacher salaries, books, and technology.

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