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Analysis finds healthy packed lunches cost on average 45% more than unhealthy ones

17 May 2024
New analysis from The Food Foundation as part of its Kid’s Food Guarantee has found that on average it’s 45% more expensive for parents to feed their children a healthy packed lunch compared to providing unhealthy and less nutritious options.

Prices of healthy options have risen by up to 9% over the last six months in four out of five major retailers, despite a slowing in food price inflation since last November.

The Food Foundation is calling on retailers to ensure that any falls in the price of food are swiftly passed onto consumers and that nutritious items that are staples for a child’s healthy diet are prioritised.  

Across all five retailers looked at (Morrisons, Sainsburys, Aldi, Asda and Tesco), the unhealthy packed lunch was substantially cheaper, demonstrating the barriers parents face when trying to feed their children an adequately nutritious diet.

Tesco did come out best when compared to others, with a healthy lunch being just 9% more expensive than the unhealthy packed lunch. Aldi had the biggest discrepancy in price, with the healthy packed lunch being 77% more expensive than the unhealthy packed lunch. 

The unhealthy lunchbox items generally contain more sugar, and less fibre and micronutrients than the healthy lunch. For example, the unhealthy lunch contains a flavoured yogurt which contains approximately 2.5 times as much sugar compared to unsweetened yoghurt. There are no fruit and veg in the unhealthy lunch compared to four portions in the healthy lunch.   

Shona Goudie, policy and advocacy manager at The Food Foundation, commented: “The Government’s stringent eligibility criteria to qualify for free school meals is leaving hundreds of thousands of children who are living in poverty but missing out on them at risk of malnutrition.

“Children from families with incomes not low enough to qualify for a free school meal and yet unable to afford lunch from the school canteen are left reliant on unhealthy packed lunches. No one should be priced out of being able to provide healthy food for their children and retailers need to do more to support families to afford the food they need.”  

There are 900,000 children living in poverty across England who do not currently qualify for the Government’s free school meals scheme due to the stringent criteria set by national Government. Outside of London, only children from households with earnings below £7,400 a year (after tax, before benefits) are eligible; a threshold that has not increased since 2018.

Many parents who can't afford to pay for school lunches opt for packed lunches because they cost less. This research shows unhealthy packed lunches offer a considerable saving; healthy packed lunches do not. The Food Foundation is calling for Government to extend free school meals so that the most deprived children are not priced out of a hot, nutritious lunch with their peers.