Investigating the Cost of National School Lunch Program Lunches versus the Full, Time-Inclusive Cost of Home-Packed Lunches

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Virginia Tech


Background: National School Lunch Program (NSLP) meals have been found to be of higher dietary quality than home-packed lunches.

Objective: To explore the cost, including time, of NSLP versus different categories of home-packed lunches.

Methods: Data from pre-kindergarten and kindergarten lunches from three schools in southwest Virginia were used for this study. Each lunch item was priced, and a direct cost was assigned based on the lunches contents. Time assessments were conducted to determine the amount of time to prepare each lunch, with a monetary value for time computed based on average salary of the respective county. A non-parametric Kruskal Wallis test was used to compare the direct cost, time, time cost, and the full cost of the meals. Medians were computed based on outlier data.

Results: The lowest median direct cost was found for homemade packed lunches ($1.55), followed by homemade school lunches ($2.11), then convenience packed lunches ($2.12), and then NSLP lunches ($2.15). When incorporating preparation time, the NSLP lunch cost the least ($2.15), followed by convenience packed lunches ($2.56), then homemade packed lunches ($2.92), and then homemade school lunches ($11.32). Seventy-six percent (n=414) of home-packed lunches contained sugar-sweetened beverages and/or dessert food items, accounting for almost one-quarter (21.8%) of the cost of all home-packed lunches.

Conclusion: When time is computed as part of the total cost of NSLP versus home-packed lunches, the NSLP is the least expensive option. In conjunction with the nutritional benefits of the NSLP, this time-cost data may help shift purchasing and consumption patterns.



National School Lunch Program, NSLP, home-packed lunch, direct cost, time cost, time-inclusive cost, full cost