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Counting the cost of lunchbox options

A new study shows families are spending on average $25 a week on packing their child’s school lunchbox.

The new analysis, by Flinders University in South Australia, University of Newcastle and Hunter New England Population Health Service experts in NSW, has unpacked the average cost of a school lunchbox – noting that healthy options offer lower costs.

Ms Alexandra Manson. Image: Flinders University.

Flinders University PhD candidate and dietitian Ms Alexandra Manson said eating well at school is key for children’s growth, learning and development, with schooltime food consumption making up one-third of dietary intake.

The new study unpacked the lunchbox contents of more than 1,000 children aged 4-12 years in NSW, finding most families spend between $3 and $6 per child per week. Lower cost came from lunchboxes filled with healthy options.

Ms Manson, from the Healthy Start to Life research group at the Flinders University Caring Futures Institute, said it is a known fact that families face a lot of challenges when packing lunchboxes.

“Trying to provide affordable, healthy, convenient, enjoyable goods that comply with the school rules, can be time consuming,” she said.

“Some families are spending more for convenience choices, while others are struggling to afford lunchbox foods with the rising costs of living.”

Children eat 2,400 lunches at school over their education, providing lots of opportunities for learning about food and developing references, say the research team, which is also researching the potential for school provided meals in Australia.

“There’s more we can do to make sure the system is supporting all families. Ensuring tasty healthy, affordable choices are readily available in and around schools would be a great start,” Ms Manson said.

Flinders University co-author Dr Brittany Johnson said currently, one in two children around the world receive school provided meals.

“We need to start thinking about how we can best support families to ease the lunchbox burden and ensure all children have access to healthy food every day at school,” Dr Johnson said.

“Our research is currently exploring parent and stakeholder interest in school provided meals, and understanding what different families might need in such a model.”

Key points:

  • Food and beverage costs have risen more than 20% since 2017. This is contributing to the cost-of-living pressures on families, which also includes increases in other household bills, school fees and uniforms.
  • This study found the cost of providing basic lunchbox meals was on average $25 a week per child.
  • Researchers say school provided meals have the potential to support families and provide a safety net for all.

The article, Unpacking the cost of the lunchbox for Australian families: a secondary analysis (2024), by Alexandra C Manson, Brittany J Johnson, Luke Wolfenden, Rachel Sutherland and Rebecca K Golley has been published in Health Promotion International (Oxford), accessible here.

The researchers said these findings reiterate that the cost of healthy food is not the key barrier to providing a nutritious school lunchbox.

Other suggestions include providing nutritious, enjoyable and affordable lunches – focusing on less packaged foods such as fresh fruit, vegetable sticks, grain-bread salad sandwiches and yoghurt.

The study was supported by the Hunter Medical Research Institute, Hunter Children’s Research Foundation, Hunter New England Population Health and an Australian Government Research Training Scholarship and the King and Amy O’Malley Trust (supporting AC Manson).

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