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More and more people are finding themselves living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region. In some places, rent has doubled. The cost of everyday goods — like gas and groceries — keeps creeping up. All the while, wages lag behind and the affordable housing crisis looms. Amid cost-of-living increases, WUSF is focused on documenting how people are making ends meet.

Students will start paying for school meals again and in some districts prices are going up

Scott Lake lunch crew.jpg
Polk County School District
Cafeteria employees stand outside of the kitchen at Scott Lake Elementary School in Lakeland.

Three counties in the greater Tampa Bay region are increasing the cost of breakfast and lunch for students compared to the last time students paid for meals during the 2019-2020 school year.

Students will need to bring lunch money to school again this fall.

Waivers from the Department of Agriculture that allowed all students to eat breakfast and lunch for free at school during the pandemic expired on June 30.

Some school districts will keep prices the same as they were before the waivers took effect in 2020. But in other districts, prices are going up.

For some families, the additional cost after two years of free meals could be a burden, said Theresa Crocker, the director of USF’s Nutrition and Dietetics Program.

"Certainly economic situations have changed. Everything is costing all of us more money — not just people that were already struggling to make their ends meet,” Crocker said. “I'm sure there are children that are going to fall through that gap.”

In the greater Tampa Bay region, three school districts are increasing the cost of breakfast and lunch for students compared to the last time students paid for meals during the 2019-2020 school year.

In Manatee, Sarasota and Pasco counties, the cost of breakfast and lunch will increase 25 to 50 cents depending on grade level.

In Manatee County, school breakfasts were free in 2019-20, and will remain free during the upcoming school year. Elementary and secondary school lunches will jump from $2.50 to $2.75 and $2.75 to $3.00, respectively.

In Sarasota County, breakfast and lunches will increase 50 cents compared to prices in 2019-20. Elementary and secondary breakfast will jump from $1.00 to $1.50 and $1.50 to $2.00, respectively. Lunches are also increasing by 50 cents totaling $2.75 for elementary students, $3.20 for middle schoolers and $3.25 for high-school students.

In Pasco County, breakfast and lunch will increase between 25 and 50 cents for elementary, middle- and high-schoolers.

Hillsborough and Pinellas counties will maintain the same price schedule from the 2019-20 school year, which includes free breakfast for all students.

In Polk County, students have received free breakfast and lunch for several years as part of the USDA’s Community Eligibility Program, which offers reimbursement to schools or school districts to provide free meal options in low-income areas.

District spokesperson Kyle Kennedy said the program helps ensures Polk County students have the basics they need to succeed.

“Nutritious meals are a key component to students’ success in school and life. It’s difficult to stay focused and do your best in the classroom on an empty stomach,” he said.

Some school districts that are reinstating full-priced breakfast and lunch are working to enroll more schools into the Community Eligibility Program. For the 2021-22 school year, Manatee County had 25 schools in the program. For the 2022-23 school year, Pinellas County enrolled 11 more schools into the program.

On July 22, the USDA announced extended deadlines for schools and districts to enroll in the Program, as well as an additional $2 billion in supply chain assistance for the upcoming school year.

Other federal and income-based programs remain in place for families in need of assistance to cover the costs of school breakfast and lunch.

The National School Lunch Program offers free- or reduced-price meals to children in households that receive federal food assistance, like SNAP benefits, or fall below a certain income threshold. To determine eligibility, families are required to submit an application at the beginning of each school year.

Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.

I tell stories about living paycheck to paycheck for public radio at WUSF News. I’m also a corps member of Report For America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.