How much should a school lunch cost?

You might remember the fuss a few years ago when Alice Waters publicly speculated that a quality school lunch should cost about $5. Critics were scornful, and public opinion seemed to reject Waters’ idea, as school food activist Dana Woldow writes today in the San Francisco BeyondChron (I found Woldow’s courtesy article of The Lunch Tray: a great blog well worth checking out).

You might be interested to know that school lunches in Paris cost up to $7 per child (for the wealthiest families). (See my earlier post on this topic).

A key point about the Parisian school food system is that poorer families pay much less: 20 cents per meal (yes, that’s right, 20 cents). Most middle-class families pay around $3 per meal. In other words, the middle-class and wealthy subsidize meals for poorer families, so that all children can eat the same thing at school.

Check out my post, and you’ll see that students get a lot for their money: three or four course meals, with delicious food (including organic).

The French believe that good food does cost money, and they’re willing to pay. They also believe that everyone should have access to healthy food. I realize that suggesting ‘cross-subsidies’ might make people angry, but it is a solution worth talking about, in my opinion. Otherwise, only children from families who can pay for ‘real food’ will get it. And I think that’s unfair.

6 thoughts on “How much should a school lunch cost?

  1. Clearly something is not working well here in North America regarding how children are fed, particularly children from poorer communities. A mandatory school meal system would definitely go some way to raising the nutrition bar across most of the population and, as a mother of four, I would absolutely welcome such as system (packing lunches consumes a more and more of my time as the children grow up and eat more).

    Recently our school, a government elementary school in Vancouver, introduced a program of regularly making available free fruits and vegetables from local producers to children in their classrooms in order to familiarize them with the taste and other pleasures of fresh produce (a new experience for many). Even my own children, who eat more fresh produce than most, showed a marked improvement in their attitude to fresh veggies at home after the start of this program.

    This effect is one among many of the long-term benefits of a school-provided lunch menu.


  2. Great comments, Kate! The issue of how much we’d be willing to pay is really important. I think that French families are willing to pay because lunch is the main meal of the day (at least 40% of total caloric intake — it is a really big meal, for both kids and adults). DInner is a later, and lighter, meal than we eat here. So that helps explain why they’re willing. Another reason is that the food is SO good, and the French place a high priority on eating really well, and on sharing meals together. These are traditional cultural values for them.

    The question of mandatory lunches is a touchy one, I agree. By the way, school lunches aren’t mandatory in France (kids can choose to go home if they wish). Kids with allergies can also make special arrangements. But French kids can not bring their own lunches, and there are no vending machines. Most families choose to eat at school, and in places with cross-subsidies (like Paris), this helps. But the average price in Paris is a lot higher than for the rest of France, by the way. In the little village where we lived, it was between $2 and $3 per meal.

    So the question for us in North America is: if we care about what our children are eating, would we be willing to pay more? As noted by Michael Pollan, we pay less for our food than any country on earth (at any time in world history). He asks: Should what we put into our bodies really be this cheap? And what hidden price do we pay (e.g. in terms of our health) for having cheap food?

    The answer for concerned families is: we make good food at home and send it with our kids. But in our case, our children don’t eat it (and they get tempted by all of the junk food and fast food they see around them). So, although families try their best, I wonder whether the culture in North America works against their efforts in teaching children to eat well. And what about families that can’t afford to send their children to school with high-quality, healthy lunches?

    Wow, you’ve really given me lots to think about. So thanks for raising these points! 🙂


  3. As I understand it, it is mandatory to participate in the school lunch system in France, and students are not allowed to bring lunches from home…so this how the subsidizing of the system works if I am correct.

    For families who don’t qualify for the free or reduced lunch system here in the US, I’m not sure that all families would want to be told that they must participate in such a system, for many reasons.

    From the government end of things, I have no idea what they should be spending. I myself can’t see paying $5 per child on a daily basis, though.


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