With the start of school just days away, back-to-school preparation is more than just buying school supplies and new clothes. It’s also figuring out how to fit the rising cost of food into the family budget, whether you have pre-schoolers or high school students.

You have noticed that everywhere you purchase food; it is costing you more every time you dip into your wallet when you check out, whether you are at the grocery store, the local restaurant, the wholesale clubs and even the convenience store.

The noticeable increase has also reached the cost of providing meals in public education systems.

Beccy Eckert, director of food service for the Stephenville Independent School District, said the cost has risen dramatically, but the school district has decided to maintain meal prices in an effort to help parents, for at least this year. However, “ala carte” items such as pizza and french fries, will have a slight increase.

“We serve 1,700 meals daily with about 600 “ala carte” items being purchased daily. Last year, we noticed as gas prices went up, so did the number of students who purchased school meals,” said Eckert.

The rising costs, said Eckert, can be attributed to the production and transportation costs increasing, therefore, passing those costs on to the consumer. She said it’s no secret that all the costs in getting the food here have petroleum-based factor. She cited that a milk supplier had incurred a four-fold increase in the cost of the plastic milk jug alone. Again, that cost was passed on in the price of milk.

There is help available. The USDA offers the government funded National School Lunch Program. This program, which began in 1946 by President Harry Truman, allows students who meet income eligibility requirements to be allowed meals either free or at a reduced cost. The school districts are then reimbursed for the difference, making the food provided known as “reimbursable meals,” to ensure that every kid can eat lunch.

According the program eligibility guidelines published by the USDA:

Children receive a free lunch if their household income is at or below 130 percent of poverty ($22,321 for a family of three). Children whose families earn between 130 percent and 185 percent of poverty ($31,765 for a family of three) receive a reduced-price lunch, which can cost no more than $.40 cents. Students who do not come from low-income families pay the full price, though the federal government subsidizes the cost of their meals as well. Almost 60 percent of Texas schoolchildren are low-income and therefore eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

“The National School Lunch is a win-win-win, benefiting parents, students, and schools. Parents win because they are offered a convenient way to provide lunch for their children at the lowest possible price. Meals contain one third or more of the nutrients students need everyday,” as stated in a statement published on the National School Lunch program. “The premise behind National School Lunch program today is simple: in order for children to learn, they need to eat well.”

In the SISD, “reimbursable” meals include a minimum of two choices for entrees and always include a meat, fruit, vegetable, bread and milk, which are state mandated requirements. In the SISD, the cost of a reimbursable meal for junior high age through high school is $2 for lunch and $1 for breakfast. For those students in pre-K through intermediate it is $1.75 for lunch and $1 for breakfast.

“We will hold the prices at least one more year,” Eckert said, adding the school district knows that parents are having to find ways to cut expenses. Additionally, she noted that as food and gas prices both increased, the district expects to be serving more students.

“We know that parents are having a hard time,” said Eckert.

“It will not change the way I serve meals. We will go up on ‘ala carte’ items, but will continue to hold lunch and milk prices,” Eckert said. Due to the cost increases, she acknowledged it continues to be a “real challenge” to produce healthy meals.

She added that she doesn’t see the increase slowing down anytime soon due to the continuing cycle of increases in food production and transportation, which ultimately are passed on to the consumer and in this case, the parents of school age children.

According to the USDA Department of Food and Nutrition, “more than 2.8 million Texas students receive hot lunches” on a daily basis, with over 7.300 public schools participating in the National School Lunch program.

Local food assistance programs such as H.O.P.E. notice differences in the change of seasons.

“Our demand for food goes down during school year because kids are eating either free or reduced lunches. We are seeing a greater overall demand due to food and fuel prices going up,” stated Jill Scott, director of H.O.P.E. Inc.

She added that weather also affects the need for food when parents have jobs that are dependent on good working conditions. Many requested food and utility assistance because their available funds went to other necessities since they were unable to work due to the rainfall in June and July.

But, you say, what if you have college students you are supporting? The cost of tuition and books alone can leave parents strapped to provide other necessities.

At Tarleton State University, various college church organizations provide free lunches to college students during the week. Two such entities include the Baptist Student Center and the Wesley Foundation, both located adjacent to the university campus. Various churches within the community take turns offering meals to the groups as a part of their church ministry. Norman Suggs of the Wesley Foundation Methodist Student Center says that sometimes those provided meals make the difference on whether a college student gets to eat.