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9 ways to get free school supplies this year

Aug. 12, 2019

You don’t need a fancy calculator to figure out that back-to-school shopping can put a major strain on your family’s finances. The National Retail Federation reports that the average family spends close to $700 on back-to-school shopping every year. Between the costs of clothes, backpacks and school supplies, it’s easy to see how it all adds up.

But sometimes there’s not enough room in the family budget to buy even the basics for students. Lt. Colonel Ward Matthews, The Salvation Army’s National Secretary for Community Relations and Development, says it’s a problem he sees all too often. “With nearly 15 million children living in low-income and impoverished households, many parents will struggle to buy every item on the list,” Matthews says. “They will have to make unfair choices like whether to buy school supplies or groceries, or the electric bill or needed prescriptions.”

For families who need them, free school supplies are available through a number of outlets around the country. Here are nine places to start your search.

1. Your child’s school

If you’re searching for free school supplies, your child’s school is one of the first places you should look for help. Reach out to your child’s teacher or a school administrator to see if there are any programs available for kids in need. Some teachers may also sign up for programs that provide extra classroom supplies, such as the SupplyAClassroom.org Program through the Kids in Need Foundation. 

2. Your local school district

If your school doesn’t offer assistance for low-income families, check with your local school district. They may have programs or events in place to provide students with needed supplies before the start of the school year. 

A number of public schools in Massachusetts, for example, provide supplies for students in need. “All of our students deserve equal access to the tools they need to succeed,” says Rebecca Smoler, English Language Coordinator for Sharon Public Schools in Massachusetts. “We want our kids to be able to focus on learning and not have to worry about whether they have a pencil, binder or calculator — or how they’re going to acquire them.”

3. Kids in Need Foundation

The Kids In Need Foundation (KINF) provides free supplies to students at high-need schools through dozens of free teacher resource centers nationwide and backpack programs throughout the year.  

“We tell children that preparation is the key to success, but then ask them to achieve in environments where they don't have access to paper and pencils,” says KINF’s Director of Marketing and Communications Claire Spinti. “[Teachers] tell us time and again how much it helps their students' self-esteem to know they are valued by their community. This in turn helps the students participate and stay engaged in their learning.” 

If there isn’t a KINF resource center in your community, teachers can apply for the SupplyAClassroom.org program, which provides each classroom with two large boxes with a full semester's worth of core supplies. Principals or teachers can visit KINF.org to apply.

4. The Salvation Army

The Salvation Army is just one organization that provides free back-to-school supplies to communities across the country, including free backpacks stuffed with school supplies. 

“We coordinate with families who need a hand up during a difficult time,” says Matthews, “and then we conduct school supply drives, like the Stuff the Bus events we just held in front of nearly 3,000 Walmart stores across the country, purchase supplies as needed and then hold a distribution event for families to come out and pick up what they need for the new school year.” 

Find your closest Salvation Army center via ZIP code search at SalvationArmyUSA.org and inquire about their local events.

5. United Way

United Way offices nationwide host annual back-to-school drives to collect and distribute school supplies to families in need. Check with your local chapter to find out how you can benefit.

6. Boys & Girls Clubs of America

The Boys and Girls Clubs work with a number of national retailers to collect and distribute school supplies to kids in need. Check with your local chapter to find out how these collections can benefit your family.

7. Operation Homefront’s Back to School Brigade

If you’re a military family, Operation Homefront offers backpacks and school supplies through nationwide events. Check the Back to School Brigade schedule to find an event near you. 

8. Local churches and community centers

Keep an eye on your local churches and community centers, such as the Red Cross and YMCA, because some of them may offer assistance to families in need during back-to-school season. YMCA of Greater Houston, for instance, hosts Operation Backpack every year to provide school supplies for kids in need. Organizations often alert local media about planned fundraisers, so stay tuned to the news if you want to know about upcoming events.

9. DIY school supplies drive

If you’re not finding the help you need in your own community, consider the option of filling the need yourself by organizing a school supplies drive in your hometown. KINF offers a School Supply Drive Toolkit with tips for success, from determining a method for collecting supplies to getting people involved and delivering your supplies. United Way and the Salvation Army also offer toolkits for hosting your own drive. 

Read next: 16 inspiring back to school quotes to live by

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