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Parents go into debt to pay for kids’ meals



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Aimee Picchi, Special to USA TODAY
Published 10:00 a.m. ET Aug. 18, 2020 | Updated 2:47 p.m. ET Aug. 18, 2020

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Switching from in-person to online schooling has been hard on many families – and on their budgets.

About one-quarter of parents say they’ve gone into debt to pay for their kids’ at-home school expenses, and many blame the cost of their kids’ breakfasts and lunches when they switched to learning remotely from home.

A survey from Credit Karma  examines how this school year could affect household finances. More than half of parents say they expect to spend slightly to significantly more on school supplies, the survey of more than 1,000 parents found.

The reasons for the debt are higher grocery prices and the sudden switch to at-home schooling in March.

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Before the pandemic, about 30 million children were fed daily by their schools’ breakfast and lunch programs, according to the School Nutrition Association.

Those meals are a good deal for parents: The majority of children receive free or reduced-cost lunches, and the regular price is about $2.50 a meal for elementary-age kids. When the pandemic shut down in-person schooling in March, millions of parents found themselves on the hook for providing those meals at home. About one in four parents who have taken on debt from at-home education costs blame the expense of breakfast and lunch for their kids, Credit Karma found.

“School lunch was a lot cheaper to pay for every day versus making lunch at home,” says Colleen McCreary, chief people officer at Credit Karma, whose son started his 2020-21 school year in online classes. “It’s all-day grazing, depending on the age of a child.”

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Even though school districts provided free meals to families through pickup locations during the pandemic, a majority of districts witnessed a drop of 50% or more in the number of meals they served, says Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association. That could be due to conflicts with work schedules for parents, who might be unable to make it to the pickup locations, or concern about safety, given COVID-19 infection rates in some communities.

Grocery prices have crept up, pushing costs on  everything from eggs to peanut butter. About one-quarter of students pay the full price of $2.50 for an elementary school lunch; the remainder pay reduced fees or qualify for free lunches.

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Families with two children spent 10% more on weekly groceries at the end of July compared with the end of April, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse survey, which was created to track the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic on households.

Spending on prepared foods or deliveries surged even more – by 25% – for parents with two children.

It’s likely that millions of parents will continue to face higher costs for food in the coming school year, given that 17 of the 20 largest school districts in the USA opted for remote learning this fall, according to Education Week. About 4 million students are enrolled in those districts.

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The hardships caused by the pandemic, including lost income and employment as well as higher food prices, are among the reasons why the School Nutrition Association urges that meals be provided for free to all students this school year. Food insecurity is on the rise as households cope with the fallout from the pandemic, a concerning development for children, Pratt-Heavner says.

“It would be simpler for schools in the middle of a pandemic to distribute meals to any child who requests one,” Pratt-Heavner says. “There won’t be any PIN pads. There won’t be any questions or ‘Oh, my mom and dad didn’t send in any money.’ ”

Other costs push up household spending: Parents anticipate shelling out more money on technology such as laptops and tablets, Credit Karma says. That’s most likely because at-home students needing better equipment to do their work.

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Consider where to cut spending, as well as how to reduce technology outlays by looking for refurbished or secondhand computers, McCreary advises.

“When it comes to back to school, assess what you already have and prioritize must-haves,” she says. “Many of those school sports won’t happen, so you don’t need to spend on those things. Maybe it’s just a new shirt for the first day of school,” given many kids will be on Zoom calls this fall.

Aimee Picchi is a business journalist whose work appears in publications including USA TODAY, CBS News and Consumer Reports. She spent almost a decade covering tech and media for Bloomberg News. You can find her on Twitter at @aimeepicchi.

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