Budgeting For Change: Five School Lunches for Under $2



We all want our kids to be healthy. In the midst of hectic lives, we try our best. Sometimes, we have good days—an astounding victory for spinach, squash, and sparkling teeth. On bad days, convenience trumps health and teeth stay fuzzy. Such is life. But good or bad, there’s one thing I do every day: make my daughter Helen’s lunch.

I’ve seen lots of examples of school food in action. I’ve toured massive programs where everything comes packaged in plastic, and I’ve experienced joyful triumph in helping to introduce Santa Clara County’s first farm-to-school program. I’ve seen profound differences in the way food is approached, despite similar price points.

When I discovered that my daughter’s school spent $1.98 per lunch (that’s not including labor, folks), I was flabbergasted. I’m not really one for budgets; I’m also not a coupon-clipping supermarket genius. But I knew I could do better. In lean times, knowing farmers and cooking from scratch kept healthy food on our table.

But what if I had just $1.98 per meal? What could I make?

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For one week in November, I set out with a budget in mind. I challenged myself to shop only at the farmer’s market and Whole Foods, to reach the price point of Helen’s lunch program. If I could make healthy meals at high-end retail, there is a good argument that with wholesale prices, schools could do it even better.

My week’s worth of menus:

Monday: Chili, cornbread, and a salad. Dessert: Half a fair trade banana, fresh pear slices and chocolate chips. Total Cost: $1.77.

Tuesday: Homemade hummus with pita and vegetables for dipping, and a hard-boiled, pastured egg. Dessert: Freshly sliced pear and chocolate chips. Total Cost: $1.66.

Wednesday: Avocado sushi with bok choi and carrots, and a hard-boiled, pastured egg. Dessert: Fresh sliced pear and chocolate chips. Cost = $1.77.

Thursday: Chicken soup (“pho”) with brown rice noodles, hard-boiled, pastured egg, salad with avocado, black beans. Dessert: Fresh sliced pear and chocolate chips. Cost: $1.96.

Friday: Bean & cheese mini tacos with jicama and edamame. Dessert: Fresh fruit and a black bean brownie. Cost: $1.87.

I‘ve learned a few things worth sharing from my school lunch challenge:

1. A simple look at my food bill destroys the myth that schools can’t afford good food. If I could do it at Whole Foods prices, anyone with a club card can kill the $2 lunch challenge. The big argument that remains is that made-from-scratch foods are too labor-intensive. People need to be trained to cook, and trained people get paid better. But I believe that many people would trade their unwrap-heat-serve routine for the chance to create real food for kids they care about. And for us parents? We can’t keep brown bagging it while waiting for the world to change. It’s time to get involved, and it’s time to get vocal.

2. Even the most conscientious farmers have food waste. The deals I got at the end of the farmer’s market were rock bottom cheap. Schools should capitalize on this “waste” by setting up direct relationships with local farms to take their seconds. Veggies headed for the compost pile and LUTG (looks ugly, tastes great!) fruit could make a monumental difference in the volume of produce schools could afford.

3. Food marketing companies have absolutely convinced us that our kids “need choice.” In the lunch line, a child chooses her main dish, side dish, fruit, and—if she’s in one of the worst districts—the option to forego these selections altogether and load up on chips, candy, and Gatorade. But what if we gave kids one meal? Could we foster the same sense of togetherness and community at lunchtime that we want to see at the family table? What would that look like? It certainly wouldn’t be the card-swiping junk fest that the food marketers want us to believe is our birthright as American consumers.

4. Switching from contract to independent food service is also a way for schools to break the “good sales, cheap food” cycle and improve quality without increasing the price point. I was privileged to watch that transition underway at Santa Clara Unified School District, a massive district of 14,000 kids (46 percent of whom get a free lunch), that went independent about six years ago. When we were working to get Full Circle Farm’s produce into the lunch program, we were seeing amazing changes take place: kitchens were retrofitted; chefs were hired; produce wholesalers were contracted. I’m not saying it was easy. But when that first truck full of watermelons and tomatoes went over to the district’s central warehouse, I got goosebumps. We had grown this good food, and now it would feed kids who needed it.

5. Kids who have a tangible, emotional bond to healthy food want to eat it regularly. Whether they harvest a head of broccoli in the garden or make fresh tortillas in the kitchen, let students be “Chef for a Day.” Getting kids into the act of making school lunches—putting them in charge of the process of creating their own food for themselves and their classmates—is a powerful recipe. We can change kids’ relationship with food with just a patch of dirt, or nine cents worth of corn flour.

So now, it’s time to get real. Let’s take cafeteria-style mashed potatoes (ingredients: potato, maltodextrin, shortening powder, hydrogenated soybean oil, lactose, sodium caseinate diposassium, phosphate, hydrogenated vegetable and/or cottonseed oil, mono and diglycerides, artificial color yellow #6, sodium bisulfite, milk) and replace them with wholesome food.

Parents, do the $2 lunch challenge with me: make one meal for less than $2—for yourself or your favorite little person. Then spread the word. Tell your friends. Put pictures and recipes online. Write a letter to your school district. Write a letter to your local paper. Do what you can to keep the issue front and center.

It’s not about the money—it’s about the mindset.

Photos: Lilia Schwartz

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View Comments (10)

  1. Jason
    Wednesday, November 24th, 2010
    This is an informative and inspirational article. The lunches you prepared sound wonderful. I too create delicious meals for around $2. It's such a conundrum to think that you can stay out of the "cheap food system" and eat better while managing to save money.
  2. Wednesday, November 24th, 2010
    Great post.

    I was alerted to this challenge by one of my regular readers, Kristi. I'll help you spread the word. I'll put a link on my blog and forum today. Expect incoming.
  3. Friday, November 26th, 2010
    This is a great post, Elizabeth! We set out on a similar challenge this November as a feature on lunchtaker.com, albeit without a price target in mind. We found we could get a month's worth of nutritious, packed school lunches for $1.77, which was great news! You can read more about our experiment, recipes, and download shopping and price lists at our blog post on lunchtaker.com. Thanks for the great post!
  4. holly
    Friday, November 26th, 2010
    I want to know where to get those awesome metal lunch trays!
  5. Sunday, November 28th, 2010
    I will accept your challenge! Thank you for the inspiration!
  6. Monday, November 29th, 2010
    What does everyone here think about the food bill that is being passed thru the Senate during this 'lame duck' session?
    If this passes it would mean an end to all that you are promoting.
  7. Monday, November 29th, 2010
    I loved the article and the challenge! I'll post it on my blog and will be send in pictures of my own. Just recently my kids' school started posting nutritional information about the school lunches. While they aren't as horrible looking as the ones posted by Ms. Q on FedUpWithSchoolLunch, some of the meal choices are fat laden and loaded with stuff that isn't good. Way to go!
  8. Kelly Lively
    Wednesday, December 1st, 2010
    I love this idea. I too introduced farm to school in our district and even moved the district to hire a chef who now cooks from scratch. He does some great lunches...I got really into the local and took a job at our distributor of local foods, feels right. But what I really want to know is where to get that bento lunch box you show in the photo. I use the laptop lunch boxes when I send lunch, but would much rather have the one pictured for my kids and husband and self! Thanks...we will take on this challenge, my kids will love it!
  9. Aussie Girl
    Tuesday, December 7th, 2010
    Brilliant post, well done.