By Carol Zimmermann | Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Each year at back-to-school-time, many parents are in sticker shock about school-supply costs.
This year, with inflation, is no exception as parents pay more for everything from notebooks to backpacks and calculators.
Never mind shoes and clothes, and for some, laptops.
The National Retail Federation reported in June that school-supply prices were expected to increase by 40% and one loan company said 37% of parents with school-age children said they are unable to afford back-to-school shopping.
Last year, many families had help with these purchases through the government’s monthly payments with its child tax credit.
This year, not only are families feeling the pinch, but service agencies are seeing a decrease in donations.
Catholic Charities agencies around the country are helping with annual school-supply drives to get backpacks and notebooks in the hands of as many students as possible.
“Unfortunately, the decrease in donations makes it harder to serve those that are in need the most,” said Amy Lambert, community resources coordinator for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois.
Lambert, who has coordinated the agency’s back-to-school fair for the past 10 years, said the event has been streamlined since COVID-19 with a drive-thru model offering families who have registered the supplies they need.
The agency has sponsored these fairs for more than 30 years. On its website it says they are necessary because students need basic supplies and places to keep everything to learn effectively and have the same advantages as their peers.
It goes a step further saying: “Education is one of the most important factors in breaking a cycle of poverty. We must give children from low-income households every chance to succeed at school.”
Shannon Parker, a community services director at Catholic Charities in La Crosse, Wisconsin, has run the agency’s back-to-school fair for more than 10 years and has seen demands continue while it also has had to scale back its efforts since the pandemic.
This year, the agency sponsored three back-to-school fairs, the most recent one was Aug. 9 and 10 at the La Cross Center. Families who preregistered could come to the sports arena to pick up free backpacks and fill them with new donated supplies.
Some fairs include free haircuts, immunizations, vision and dental care.
Parker and Karen Becker, the agency’s director of marketing, feel the school fairs meet an economic need but also help the students start the school year off on some equal footing. They also said they rely on local businesses and parishes for donating supplies.
Another big hit for parents of public school children this year is lunch money.
This fall marks the end of universal free school lunches in public schools, a federally funded program during the pandemic that was not renewed.
Not only will students and parents face the cost for meals if students don’t qualify for free lunches, they also will incur rising costs of making packed lunches at home due to higher grocery costs.
Some states will continue to keep school meals free for all students. California and Maine, for example, made universal meals permanent last year and a handful of other states are looking into also doing this or providing free school meals for all public school students for at least another year.
As a Vermont mother of four, who just missed being able to qualify for free lunches by a few dollars, told The Associated Press this summer: “Our kids have so much to worry about these days, and food shouldn’t be one of them.”