The $1 School Lunch: Could You Do It?
I am not fond of the word "budget." I've had good ones and bad ones and it always seemed that when I had bad ones the first thing to get cut was the food budget. I thought about food budgeting a lot while reading Amy Kalafa's Lunch Wars. I wondered how much it really cost schools to create a school lunch and if they really could make them healthier without increasing their costs.
Perhaps one of the most illuminating parts of the book for me was when Amy talked about how schools had to order supplies 18 months in advance. It's a long time but when you consider the vast amount of food that a school board needs to order to feed all those kids, it makes a certain amount of sense. The suppliers need time to grow all that food, right? It also helps explain why it's so hard for there to be fast and drastic changes. Who has the budget to just forget about all that food?
Add into that the small amount of money that schools have to spend per student on school lunches. According to Amy, once you remove the overhead and staffing costs you are left with about $1 per student per meal (page 127). Think about that -- just $1. You don't even really have that full $1. Milk is a required part of school meals and generally costs $0.25, leaving you with $0.75 per student per meal.
Amy tried to come up with a meal she could create that met the financial criteria. She almost did it. She got taken down by the USDA school lunch standards. School lunches need to contain certain a percentage of specific nutrients and hit a certain caloric benchmark. Amy could create a healthy lunch for $1 a serving, but she couldn't do it and meet all the USDA requirements.
Later in the book she talks to Bruce Gluck, a food service director in New Canaan, CT. His school left the government's school lunch program more than a decade ago. They didn't like the regulations and found it harder to feed the kids inside them than outside them. His program provides healthy, freshly made meals to kids. They roast and carve turkeys and roast beef. He feeds kids duck. Yes, roast duck. And it only costs the kids $3.50-$4 per meal.
I've mostly worked at home for the last 6 years so I the times I've actually had to pack a lunch and take it anywhere have been few and far between. My husband mostly takes dinner leftovers in his lunch. I remember when I did eat out it usually cost me anywhere between $7-10. It would be less if I only grabbed a fast food combo but I tended to go for the more expensive meals because they usually tasted better. If I think back to what my mother spent on my school lunches I'd guess she spent $2-3 dollars per day. When I bought my own hot lunches (aka fries and more FRIES!) I gave myself a budget of $3 per day.
It leaves me wondering, how much do you spend on school lunches? Could you hit the $1 budget *and* meet USDA regulations?