Friday, August 26, 2011

"Reduced" Lunch

Cheap Eat Challenge, Part 2: Watch as our family of 6 eats on less than $10/day.

(Okay, so this picture may be a few things I slapped together on the counter after 10pm tonight. I'll try to get a more accurate shot Monday morning, should this blog manage to enter my mind in the course of the morning rush.)

Today we're starting with a disclaimer instead of a confession: I fully support the school lunch program (and breakfast program). Truly, I think they are wonderful ideas. This post is not intended to criticize these programs or the people who utilize them in any way. I do not think children should ever go hungry and I think these programs are a good way to put a dent in child hunger as well as give a bit of nutrition to children who otherwise might get none. I know school lunches are always under fire for not providing good nutrition (and truly much of this criticism is merited), but it's still come a long way from a whole lot of no food at all, which is what I'm pretty sure it was a couple of generations ago, or maybe even less.

End disclaimer and on to my post.

At the beginning of every school year, I'm confronted with a small dilemma. Every school year all the school children are sent home the form you can fill out if you wish your children to be considered for free or reduced lunches. Our family, being a little heavier on the children end than the money end, is always sort of toeing the line of potential eligibility. So every year I stare at that form and think about filling it out. I don't really want to. My pride interferes as does my feeling about what comprises a healthy lunch. And then there are my personal views about self-reliance and my soap box about how very much many Americans enjoy while still considering themselves "poor."

Additionally, it's not like my kids would eat most of the school lunch offerings anyway. I believe I've mentioned--oh, a time or two--that my children are rather picky. Mark doesn't eat meat. At all. Elizabeth loves meat, but only in it's virginal cooked state--no sauces, toppings or spices of any kind. Both of them have issues with vegetables (who doesn't have issues with school lunch vegetables) and all sorts of other foods. I know if I got them school lunches that they would eat a) chocolate milk, b) pudding, c) tater tots. On Thursdays when it is served, they would also eat pizza. P.S. In case you haven't been around a public school for a while, the pizzas are exactly the same as when we were growing up. I suspect that somewhere in Kansas, there is a large warehouse that, during the cold war, was stocked with frozen school lunch pizzas in the event that the world would end and frozen school lunch pizzas would be no more (say it isn't so). When the world did not end, I suspect that they began using these pizzas and that, still today, they are delivering these same 1955 school lunch pizzas to eager children around the United States.

But that is a digression from this intense intellectual political post. Let's see, where was I? Oh, yes, reduced lunch. Despite my hang-ups, the idea of reduced lunch is always sort of tempting to me.

This year I looked at my form as I always do. I tapped my pen a few times. Reduced lunches are $.40.

And then I thought, as I'm inclined to think when it comes to money and the government, "I bet I can beat that. I bet I can beat that right here at home. In fact, I bet I'm beating it right now."

So I tallied it up. And I was a little surprised about at my findings.

My kids' standard lunch (no, they don't eat exactly this every day, but they eat something like it most days, which, for the record is because they want to eat such dull fare, not because I don't ever provide the poor children other options):
Peanut butter and jelly or honey sandwich
apple sauce
grapes (if they're cheap) or other cheap fruit
treat such as breakfast cookie or a few chocolate chips
I don't always get the 2 fruits in; it depends on what we have, but I always get one in and it is always one that they will eat, which I think is a better batting average than school lunch has. Also I don't always get a treat in; heaven knows they don't really need it.

This is how much it costs:
2 slices bread store 100% whole wheat bread: .08
1/2 Tbsp Welch's grape jam: .02
2 Tbsp bulk Skippy peanut butter: .10
1/2 C applesauce (not in the individually packaged things, but measured out from the big bottle into my own tupperware): .15 (Note: originally, this said .24; that was due to a math error on my part, which I noticed the next time I went to the store and looked at applesauce. It has been corrected.)
1/2 C grapes: .16
breakfast cookie: .10
Total: $.61
If I eliminated the applesauce and the breakfast cookie, which is a sometimes typical (as in out of stuff or in a hurry) amount for us, it would be $.36. My kids would still be full enough to make it home, but they'd probably make up for it by eating a bigger snack. But then maybe they wouldn't because I feel like they always want a snack when they get home whether they've eaten a school lunch or a small homemade lunch. 

This is how many calories it contains:
bread: 150
peanut butter: 180
jam: 25
applesauce: 50
grapes: 55
breakfast cookie: 150

Total: 610 calories. If you chop out the apple sauce and breakfast cookie you get: 400 calories.

You may not know this (I didn't until recently), but schools have strict caloric guidelines and generally keep their lunches at (at minimum) between 633 and 825 calories, depending on the age of the children. This makes sense since this constitutes 1/3 of the meals of the day that they are supposedly eating (yeah, not counting those 20 snacks and sweets that the schools are helping to contribute to, but that's another rant for another day). And we have to remember that some of these meals are going to desperately needy children who may not get many calories at home. So if I chop out the applesauce and breakfast cookie, I'm not meeting the same caloric standards the school is. Of course, if I fried the whole wheat bread (the equivalent of what the schools sometimes do) I could get those calories back for only a few cents.

This is how nutritious it is: 
-1 C fruit (some info on applesauce and grapes specifically)
-Whole wheat bread contains several vitamins (especially B vitamins) as well.
-10 grams fiber: 4 grams of fiber in the bread, plus 3 from the applesauce plus 1 gram from the grapes (wow, thought the grapes were higher than that), 2 grams from the peanut butter. There's also more from a breakfast cookie (should such healthy stuff be the treat; sometimes it's a few chocolate chips) since mine are whole grain, but I don't know how much--I'd guess 2-3 grams, but it's a guess.
-14 grams protein: 7 grams protein from the peanut butter, 7 grams protein from the bread (PB, in combination with whole wheat makes a full protein). There's also probably a bit from the fruit, but not much.
-15 grams (or about 3 tsp) added sugar: 3 grams from PB, 5 grams from bread (another surprise), 7 grams from jam (a breakfast cookie will add another 5 grams or so)

This is how much time it takes me to make: 5 minutes/lunch
Make sandwiches, lovingly cut one sandwich into triangles, pour applesauce into containers, put grapes in containers, pack it all up. (I'm assuming the breakfast cookies have already been made for breakfast at some point and am therefore not counting that as extra time, though--for purposes of full disclosure, it must be admitted that cooking homemade foods does take some time). Also, I haven't counted shopping time since these are things I would buy whether I made school lunch or not. In other words it doesn't add anything to my shopping time.

This is what gets tossed uneaten into the garbage at school:
Crusts. My kids bring home the stuff they didn't eat at lunch because they didn't have time or appetite and eat it after school when they're starving from not having time or appetite to eat it earlier. I think the use of Tupperware containers for fruit encourages that because they're not going to throw that away, so they just leave the uneaten stuff in it and bring it home. Also, I have trained them (i.e. threatened them) to do so. It's important to me that they not waste it. And it's more convenient for them as well. They don't have to wait for me to finish helping with the other's homework before they can have a snack.

Interesting, huh? Considering I've been keeping obsessive compulsive track of our expenses all year, I'm a little surprised that I had no idea how much our homemade school lunches were costing us. Or what we were getting from them. Overall, I'm pleased. Although I'm not sure that applesauce is worth it's weight in gold. Bring on the carrot sticks. Except that Mark will veto that. Which is why we do applesauce. And there we go around again. A dilemma as old as school lunch itself.

I know that's still too much money for some. I know that's still time not everybody has. But I have it. And I intend to use it. Because we all get a little attached to our soapboxes, right?


  1. I know my packed lunches cost quite a bit more than yours, but then I only have to beat the $3 hot lunch price at our school... However, I am happy to say that this year our cafeteria is making everything from scratch or nearly so.
    Since we go to a nut free school I didn't know until recently that Hannah won't touch a PB sandwich that isn't FRESHLY made. Any kind of sandwich must be sent unmade which is actually more work in my opinion than making the darn sandwich.
    One thing you might find interesting is that if enough kids qualify for free or reduced lunch (I believe it is 85% of the school) the whole school gets free lunches. So, even if you never plan on buying a reduced price lunch, you could be helping out another family simply by filling out the form.

  2. So Hannah requests that you send her sandwiches unmade? Or the school does? If it's her request, don't let her talk to Mark; the last thing I need is him demanding an unmade sandwich--that would be a lot more work.

    Also, it might be true that if enough people qualify for free lunches (and I'm not sure we would--we're right on the estimated salary they send home with the paperwork), somebody's paying for it, right. I admit I don't fully understand school lunch politics/policies. I know that some of the food comes from excess that farms have that the government then buys up and distributes. But not matter how it comes to us, it comes at some type of cost to the government and somehow somewhere someone is going to end up paying for that. (Maybe it's China, no?)Does it all come out in the wash? Do the taxpayers end up paying for the farmer's excess in one way or another regardless of how many free lunches there are? I don't know. I know that my gut (i.e. soapbox) opinion is that I don't trust the government to always come through for me financially, so i don't really like feeling or being dependent on them any more than I have to. Yes, yes, I know that there are probably ways that dependence on them has creeped into my life without me even knowing, but I can't help but resist the idea of just getting or expecting a "free" lunch. I can't believe that it really comes to me without some kind of cost. And whether it's a cost that I pay for as a taxpayer or a cost someone else who is better off pays, I don't fully understand. I just don't really like the idea of someone having to pay for things if I can. And I don't like the idea of getting the government involved. Truthfully, just filling out the form with all my financial information is slightly repugnant to me (there comes that pride in, right?).

  3. LOL!
    Just to clarify, HANNAH wants her sandwich unmade. Of course, it's just sliced turkey and bread, but I have to package that... crazy girl! I won't let her talk to Mark :)

  4. My mom always taught me that if the government offers you something, you take it. Everybody pays taxes. As long as they have messed up accounting and priorities to give money to programs that we may or may not 'need' we should take what we can get. This was her advice anyway when we felt bad getting WIC, when we could technically 'get by' without it.

  5. First, I'll admit to some conflicted feelings about these programs. Thus the fact that I continue to look at the form every year.

    But. But. If everybody takes it, even when they don't need it, especially if the government's priorities and accounting are messed up, then the priorities and accounting will stay messed up because--per the numbers on the papers--huge numbers of people "need" the assistance. Consequently, the programs will never be cut back or brought down to more realistic or reasonable limits.

    Also, my gut and even my experience, both say that there are personal consequences to becoming reliant on things we don't necessarily need (no, not everyone becomes reliant, but it is easy to do). One issue I have with WIC (and in the past we've logged some time with WIC, so I do have personal experience here), is that it gets you used to a house full of juice and expensive brand name breakfast cereal. Then when you get off WIC and are still--shockingly--not terribly rich, is your son willing to eat oatmeal? Heck, no. Is your husband still sad that he can't have juice every day? Yes.

    Anyway, I'm not saying people shouldn't take advantage of the programs. I'm not even saying that a person should be absolutely dirt poor and living in abject poverty before taking part in these programs. Sometimes they can be really helpful to people in creating other money that they might need or even in allowing them to save some money and thus be prepared in other aspects of their lives.

    However, I do feel strongly that when we accept assistance from the government (or a church or anyone else really) that we should do so thoughtfully--that we should ask ourselves if we need it and why we need it, that we should ask ourselves if we could do it ourselves and if pushing to do it ourselves will help or hurt our families in the long run. So, while I don't disagree with the idea that some people should absolutely use these programs even if they're not totally poor or homeless or whatever, I don't completely agree with the idea that we should always take it just because it's there. Every situation is different. And I think any time we take something that someone else has paid for or made possible, it should be a matter of some thought and consideration.



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