WASHINGTON (DC News Now) — Parents face multiple challenges sending their children back to school, including mounting costs for food and after a federal universal free meals program ended this summer.

Funds approved by Congress ensured all school children had free lunch during the pandemic, but additional money to cover the cost for all students was not approved–a move that came as product prices rise on shelves from inflation.

While low-income households can take advantage of free and reduced lunch programs, parents in homes ineligible for lunch assistance can save at grocery stores and as school-provided lunch costs differ across the DMV.

Fairfax County Public Schools charges the most for school-provided lunch in public school districts surrounding Washington, DC.

Virginia FCPS middle and high school students are charged $3.50 daily for lunch, and elementary school students are charged $3.25–all DC Public Schools students have to pay $3.00 daily for lunch.

Middle and high school public school students in Montgomery County, MD pay $2.80 daily, and elementary students are charged $2.55.

Packed lunch alternatives that don’t break the bank exist, but parents “have to be creative with it,” according to Dr. Gabrina Dixon at Children’s National Hospital in DC.

Dixon said meal preparation “helps you [consumers] prepare and that keeps you on a budget of, kind of, you know what you’re going to get, you know what portion sizes that you want to get for it [meals], and that helps you prepare even before going to the supermarket.”

Consumers can find online coupons to cut costs, like a 35 cent discount on a Wonder Bread “classic” loaf, from Coupons.com.

A loaf of Wonder Bread will provide two slices of bread to cover ten sandwiches, and the cost breakdown for a loaf priced at Walmart will cost consumers 25 cents for two slices after taxes, and including the Coupons.com discount.

Healthy food options like produce could be cut and used for more than one meal as well as cover nutritional benefits.

Dixon said that consumers tend to plate more food than usually required, adding, “you want your plate to be mostly… a colorful plate with fruits and vegetables.”

Consumers can not only potentially save money with coupons and by comparing costs between grocers, but also by purchasing store-brand products rather than name-brand items–typically listed at lower prices.