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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘It means the world’: As inflation drives up back-to-school prices, hundreds turn out for free supplies

Mia Rosenquist, 6, picked out a mermaid-themed backpack at the Salvation Army’s Backpack for Kids giveaway on Wednesday in Spokane. A volunteer at the table said this particular item was the most popular. Mia says she likes it because it has her favorite colors.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

By 10 Wednesday morning, the sun already was baking the pavement at the corner of Ruby and Indiana as hundreds of families stood patiently.

But no one left. Instead, parents and young children inched their way to the head of the line.

The occasion was the annual Backpacks for Kids giveaway at the Salvation Army, which offered liquid refreshments for the kids and sorely needed school supplies for parents who have been sweating for months under the steady burn of inflation.

“It means the world,” said Marilyn Steiner, who brought her two boys. “These kids need supplies to go back to school, and you can only afford so many things.”

The rising cost of almost everything was on the minds of everyone at the event, which provides connections to community services in addition to backpacks and other supplies.

“It’s getting close to school and everything is spiking up,” said Monique Grisson, who accompanied her sister, Courtney, and her two children. “Everything is getting more expensive and it’s poorly made.”

Grisson said she planned to return later with her own three children.

“This makes a big difference,” she said.

The need is more urgent this year, said the man in charge, Salvation Army Maj. Ken Perine. He noted that in prior years, 400 to 500 kids were registered in advance to receive backpacks.

“This year we had 1,700 pre-registrations,” said Perine, who began the day with 4,000 backpacks in stock.

By day’s end, the Salvation Army announced it had distributed 3,100 backpacks.

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward stopped by to talk with volunteers and families as she noted the greater hardships on families.

“A lot of people are hurting right now,” Woodward said. “As those prices go up, their salaries aren’t going up. So they have to make a choice about what they don’t fund. Those are hard choices right now.”

According to a national analysis by the National Retail Federation, the biggest price increases in back-to-school items from 2019 to 2022 was for stationery (up 21.8%), followed by furniture and bedding (21.1%) and footwear (9.9%).

The federation also found that back-to-school remains an “essential category,” with 38% of parents cutting back in other areas to cover the cost of items for the upcoming school year.

This back-to-school shopping season, parents – particularly in the low- to middle-income bracket – are focusing on the basics while also trading down to cheaper stores amid surging inflation, which hit a new 40-year high in June.

A basket of roughly a dozen school supply items showed a price increase of nearly 15% on average compared with a year ago, according to retail analytics firm DataWeave.

That included backpacks, which are up almost 12% to an average of $70.

“This makes a big difference,” said Charlene James, who brought daughters Deakiah and Willow to the event. “It’s definitely getting a lot harder to get food supplies.”