Aug 8, 2022 - News

Phoenix school lunch prices on the rise as free-lunch program ends

🍏Change in Phoenix middle school lunch prices
Data: Arizona Department of Education and district websites; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

A pandemic-era program that covered the cost of school lunch for most students has ended, and some parents may feel sticker shock when they see the new rates.

What's happening: Axios Phoenix reviewed school lunch prices for several districts across the metro area and found some have raised theirs.

Why it matters: Experts predict that the end of the federal program will lead to the return of school lunch debt — and inflated prices won't help.

What they're saying: "Before the pandemic, unpaid school lunch debt was a huge problem," Crystal FitzSimons of Food Research & Action Center told Chalkbeat. "We are very concerned about unpaid school meal fees and them returning with a vengeance."

State of play: We found the biggest price jumps in middle schools.

  • Mesa Unified School District, also known as Mesa Public Schools, raised prices by 95 cents from the 2019-2020 school year.
  • That's about an extra $20 per month.

Yes, but: Making your kids' lunches might not be any cheaper.

  • The price of groceries is more than 12% higher in metro Phoenix than it was a year ago.

Of note: Not all districts raised prices. Many large districts, including Madison and Glendale elementaries and Peoria Unified District, kept their rates the same as before the pandemic.

What could have been: Educational leaders, including state Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, wanted Congress to extend the free lunch program for all students. Instead, federal lawmakers passed a watered-down version earlier this summer that requires low-income parents to go back to applying for free and reduced lunches.

  • Hoffman also says the state legislature and governor could have provided funding to keep free lunches available to all students.
  • "No kid should go hungry in a state with historic budget surpluses year over year," her spokesperson tells Axios.

Threat level: Some advocates are concerned that parents won't realize they again have to fill out applications to qualify for a lunch subsidy to avoid racking up a debt. Other families may not meet the income requirements but still struggle to pay for lunches.

By the numbers: In 2019, Arizona students accumulated an estimated $11.8 million in meal debt, according to educationdata.org.

  • Schools often rely on charities to clear the debt or go after parents. Otherwise, they have to write it off as an operating loss.
avatar

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Phoenix.

🌱

Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Phoenix stories

Phoenixpostcard

Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Phoenix.

🌱

Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more