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Renewed stress over buying school meals for students

School meals are no longer covered for everyone after a federal pandemic program comes to an end, but that doesn't mean families are OK.

ST. LOUIS — It's the start of the school year and the start of some renewed stress for families trying to afford basic food. For the first time since the start of the pandemic, breakfasts and lunches are no longer covered by the government for all families.

People can still receive free or reduced lunch if they qualify, but many families find themselves just above the threshold--they make too much money to qualify for programs, but they still struggle because of the economy and inflation.      

"Families who are working families--some with two or three jobs are just having difficulty making ends meet," said Kristen Wild, Operation Food Search President and CEO. 

Wild says there's been about a 33-percent increase in people using the charitable food system from all across the area, in both urban and rural settings. At the same time, donations have decreased by 25 percent.

"In some cases, it's someone down the street that you may have no idea that they're struggling to make sure their kids are fed," said Wild.

Operation Food Search has had to get creative about how to stretch a dollar this year, and they want to make sure you know how to as well. 

Ana Barzowski is the nutritionist on staff, and she says she likes to stick with canned fruit and canned vegetables. And while that's not surprising, she says don't forget to buy double-duty ingredients, like tomatoes. She wants to remind people they can use tomatoes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. They're a perfect example of great canned foods.

"They're fantastic, they're nutritious, budget-friendly," said Barzowksi. "And they can really last on your shelf for a very long time."

The most wanted items at Operation Food Search are canned fruits, vegetables, pasta, rice, and proteins, like beans, tuna, and peanut butter. She also reminds people that canned goods and pre-cooked rice have come a long way. 

Knowing when to supplement is also helpful. The group has Metro Market, which is a mobile grocery store that travels to areas with limited access to fresh food and sells it at significantly lower retail prices. The group also gets donations from grocery stores once food becomes expired or damaged but is still safe to eat. And, Operation Food Search is involved in a gleaning program -- this is when volunteers rescue fresh food from farms that would otherwise be wasted or unharvested.

5 On Your Side is also partnering with the group in a Tackle Hunger program that goes along with high school football. 

Operation Food Search also partners with the St. Louis County Library to bring after-school meals to several of its locations. 

Wild says it's a hard job, but it is a necessary one as more families teeter on the line to bring pay for the essentials. 

"There are a lot of families who never needed assistance before, who are finding it difficult to cover the basic needs," said Wild. "It's really heartbreaking."

To learn more about Operation Food Search, click here.

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