SARASOTA COUNTY (WFLA) – Families across the Tampa Bay area have not paid for school meals since the first few months of 2020.
However, because the USDA did not extend its free meal waivers for the 2022-2023 school year, some families will have to foot the bill for their child’s breakfast and lunch this year.
8 On Your Side reached out to all Tampa Bay area school districts on Wednesday. Officials with Sarasota, Pasco and Manatee County school districts told us they’re increasing prices this school year. Hillsborough and Pinellas County schools will see no price increase, according to officials. Meal costs in Highlands, Hernando, Polk and Hardee County schools are covered under the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision.
In Sarasota County, for example, the cost of lunch for a middle school student will be $3, up from $2.50 during the 2019-2020 school year.
“With the supply chain issues and everything that is going on, I still think [it] will be a good value for our families. We do realize that for some families, this may be a little bit of a stretch. Believe me, we have been trying to figure out if there were other options we could do in Sarasota County,” said Director of Food and Nutrition Services Sara Dan.
Families we spoke with Wednesday told us it’s “unfortunate” that prices are rising and not all families will qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
“It is an unfair burden to put on children. It is hard because, sure, you can say you don’t qualify for a free or reduced lunch because you make a certain amount of money, but the other things you have to spend your money on have gone up,” said mother Emily Sue. “Just because you have, on paper, enough money to pay for lunch, doesn’t mean you have enough money to pay for lunch or to send your child a balanced meal every day.”
Sara Dan with Sarasota County Schools said inflation is also impacting the district, with food prices rising significantly.
“Raisins that we use in breakfast, went from $57 a case to $74 a case. Peppers that you might put on a salad bar went from $9.33 a case to $38 a case, and the one that was probably the biggest surprise for me because we serve a couple thousand cases of milk each week, milk went from $23 a case to $34 a case and we figured it out to be an additional $35,000 in costs to our program,” said Dan.
She said the rising prices is what forced the district to raise prices for breakfast and lunch.
“We just don’t have a choice. There’s just no other way to say it,” explained the director for food and nutrition services for Sarasota County Schools.
The school district’s “Free & Reduced-Price Meal Benefit” application opened last week. Sarasota County Schools are encouraging all eligible families to complete and submit their application before the start of school: Free & Reduced-Price Meal Benefit Application.
District officials say if families are unsure if they need to apply, they should contact the Food & Nutrition Services’ main office for assistance at 941-486-2199.