BILLINGS — Thousands of families are about to incur a big expense again, after Congress eliminated the universal free school lunch program that has fed every public school child for the past two years.
“They are really getting crunched from all sides," said Ginny Mermel, coordinator of the Billings School District's Backpack Meals and Teen Pantries program.
Mermel saw the relief the federal program gave to especially the district's low-income families. But the program is now gone, and many will notice.
"If you shop, you know people that earn less than you are having that much more difficult of a time," Mermel said.
For the upcoming school year, Billings elementary lunches will cost $2.90 per meal, with middle and high school lunches costing $3.10. Breakfasts will cost $1.50 at each, and there’s an extra 60 cent charge for milk.
“We raised our lunch prices just a small amount this year to try and keep up with inflation, but not nearly at that rate," said Sid Taylor, SD2's child nutrition director.
With a 180-day school calendar, if an elementary school student eats breakfast and lunch every day with milk, that comes out to $900 a year - slightly more for middle and high schoolers. And if a family has multiple kids, that can add up quick.
Mermel sees one part of the population specifically vulnerable.
"Families that are in the category of reduced-price school meals," she said.
Billings Public Schools offer a free and reduced meal program. To qualify for free meals, a family of four needs to earn at or below the federal poverty level of $27,750 a year. To qualify for reduced meals, a family can earn no more than $51,375.
Reduced meals do come at a significant discount - just 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch, but just that plus milk is $234 a year. Add multiple kids and it becomes an expense you have to budget for, one many might not be expecting.
"I think you forget on top of this inflation, I now have to start providing lunch and breakfast for my kids," Mermel said.
Taylor said the district served about 12,000 meals a day before COVID-19, and he expects a similar number this year. And while some of these costs may raise eyebrows, he said what the school offers can often be a bargain in today’s world.
"We try to do the best nutritious meal for a student, and we're really conscious what we charge the parents for those meals," he said, "because it's not like we're making a huge profit doing this.”
They’re just trying to stay afloat - like so many others.