Families must consider many factors when deciding whether their child will purchase school meals, or bring a packed lunch from home. The nutrition content of school meals, their appeal to their child’s taste preferences, and the time required to pack a lunch are factors in the decision. The cost of these different approaches to feeding children at school are very important factors for families to consider.
The price of a school lunch varies by school district, but the national average in the 2015-2016 school year was $2.34 for elementary schools, $2.54 for middle schools, and $2.60 for high schools[i]. Eligible students may receive free or reduced price ($0.40) lunches. Schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program get financial reimbursement for the meals they serve, which must meet nutrition standards set by the federal government.
For simplicity, let’s say that a school lunch costs about $2.50. What do you get for that price? Schools must offer a meat or meat alternate, a grain (must be whole grain rich), low-fat milk or other dairy products, a fruit, and a vegetable for school lunch. Many districts offer a variety of options within each food group. Students must select at least three food groups, one of which must be a fruit or a vegetable, to create a reimbursable meal. However, students may select foods from all five food groups for the same price. Some school districts have made it possible for students to select multiple, or even unlimited, fruits and vegetables.
As an example, let’s consider the following elementary school meal (middle and high school portions are slightly larger):
- 2 oz grilled chicken on a whole grain bun (meat and grain)
- Whole orange
- ½ cup steamed broccoli
- 8 oz (1 cup) Low-fat milk
Let’s compare this to sending your child with a packed lunch. Below are the approximate prices for the ingredients of this meal, based US national average prices in November, 2016[ii]:
- Boneless chicken breast: $0.41
- Whole wheat roll: $0.25
- Orange: $0.36
- Broccoli: $0.38
- Low-fat milk: $0.21
So the cost of the ingredients to pack an equivalent meal for your child is approximately $1.61. However, the pricing above does not include any pantry items required to prepare the meal (oil, spices), condiments, the cost of energy to refrigerate, heat, and transport the ingredients, the cost of napkins, utensils, and trays, and perhaps most importantly, the value of the time it would take to purchase and prepare a meal for your child.
For a markup of about $0.90, your child can get a complete hot meal, and you get a shorter grocery and to-do list. Furthermore, many families that pack lunches often rely on individually packaged convenience foods that can be thrown in a brown bag, such as chips, cookies, and pudding cups, which are more expensive and less healthy. One study found that lunches brought from home had more sodium, and fewer servings of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and milk than school lunches, and almost always included desserts, chips, and sweetened beverages, which are not allowed as part of a school lunch[iii] (note that the school may sell approved snack items[iv] separate from the main meal).
Pre-boxed lunches marketed to kids deserve special mention. In a price search of major discount retailers, a popular brand of pre-boxed lunches containing a turkey sandwich, cookies, and juice was sold for $2.74 or more. This meal is not only more expensive than a school lunch, but contains no vegetables, whole grains, or whole fruit…but plenty of added sugar and processed grains.
Many families have strong, and sometimes legitimate, concerns about the nutrition and quality of school meals versus packed lunches. There is always room for improvement, but nationally, school lunch has come along way in the last decade, particularly in the required offering of fresh fruits and vegetables. If you haven’t visited the cafeteria lately, the quality of the food at your child’s school might surprise you.
School meals offer a time-saving and economical alternative to packing a lunch. The key to getting the best bang for your buck is encouraging your child to select from all of the food groups available, particularly fruits and vegetables. Read the school menu each month and identify which days your child will buy lunch, highlighting the healthy items s/he enjoys. Find out if you can join your child for lunch in the cafeteria to enjoy this bargain. Be sure to talk positively about healthy foods and serve as a role model for your child and his or her friends.
For more information on the National School Lunch Program, see https://www.fns.usda.gov/nslp/national-school-lunch-program-nslp
Chrissa Carlson, University of Maryland Extension, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources