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Ditch the mystery meat: Why brown-bagging it could be cheaper than school lunch

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Pinellas County Schools’ lunch costs $2 per meal for elementary students and $2.50 per meal for middle school and high school students, provided they do not qualify for free or reduced lunch.

That’s less than a latte from the local coffee shop and seems like a pretty snazzy bargain. But a really smart guy broke down the cost of brown-bagging your kids’ lunch and found that even at the seemingly low cost of school lunch, a good ole fashioned sandwich may be the way to go for families on a budget.

According to Len Penzo, a bologna sandwich, including condiments, costs just $0.35. Peanut butter and jelly, a favorite of any kid not allergic to nuts, runs just $0.51. Even higher quality sandwiches like ham and swiss or tuna or egg salad are just around $1. Ham and swiss is exactly $1. Upgrade to Turkey and it’s $1.44. Egg salad is just $1.08.

Even if you want to go all out and serve up a BLT for your favorite kiddo, it’s just about $2.42.

Of course, these prices aren’t taking into account all the extras kids love to have. A box of Capris Suns – my kids’ personal favorites – costs about $1.66 on sale for a box of 10. That’s a little over $0.16 a drink. Easy to grab, healthy veggie or fruit packs can run about $1 each.

Done right, packing a lunch can be both cheaper and healthier than eating a school lunch.

Some good tips for keeping costs down while ensuring your precious student is getting a healthy meal to fuel his or her growing mind include not buying individually packaged products.

Instead of buying a pack of five apple and caramel servings, try picking up a bag of pre-sliced apples for about $2.50 each on sale and a tub of sugar-free caramel. The apples should last an entire week for one student and the caramel at least two.

Same goes for beverages. Buying a reusable bottle and filling it with your child’s favorite lunch-time drink is cheaper over the long run than individual servings – especially if you opt for healthier drink options rather than sugary ones like Capris Suns or Kool-Aid pouches.

It’s also easy to take advantage of sales. If bread is buy-one-get-one, extra loaves can easily be frozen to use later. And if you have the space, stocking up on your kids’ favorites like crackers, juices or anything that doesn’t require refrigeration and can be stored in a pantry while those items are on sale can save a decent amount of money each school year.

It also makes for an easier time packing lunch when you know there’s a ready supply of extras for your pupil’s lunch.

Len Penzo also recommends cooking your own turkey or ham to slice. Extra meat can then be frozen to use in subsequent weeks by thawing out a day or two ahead of time.

On that note, Penzo also recommends slicing blocked cheese for sandwiches instead of buying pre-sliced deli cheese. According to Penzo, on a per-pound basis, block cheese is about half the cost of pre-sliced.

There’s also some cost savings associated with growing your own produce for those inclined to gardening. According to Penzo, tomato prices have quintupled since 2012.

Keep in mind that packing a lunch may not only be healthier and more cost-effective, it may also be more palatable to your child. Elementary school lunches in Pinellas consist of things like bean and cheese burritos, fish filet sandwiches and lasagna roll-ups. While school lunches have come a long way since previous generations, as a mom who’s seen it, mystery meat is still very much a thing.

High school menus seem to be a little more appetizing with teen favorites like breaded chicken sandwiches, a pork carnitas bowl and General Tso’s chicken.

According to this blogger’s high school student, school lunches also aren’t necessarily the most friendly to students on a vegetarian diet.

In Pinellas County, all students have access to free breakfast at school. Encouraging your little one to eat breakfast at school could offset some of the cost associated with packing lunch or buying a school lunch.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email

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