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Five Trends in Student Lunches

Five Trends in Student Lunches

Amanda Jeppson
Five Trends in Student Lunches

Unlike the Alice Cooper song, school is back in session, and we wanted to know: What the heck is going into kids’ school lunches this year compared to last year? With inflationary challenges and coming off of a several year long pandemic, what delicious and nutritious food items are getting kids through the day and helping them be the best versions of themselves?

To answer these questions, we put on our hairnets and dove into our recent receipt data to identify trends in school lunch categories.1, 2. Those trends are listed below, and spoiler alert: YOU CAN PURCHASE SO MUCH OF THESE AND GET POINTS WITH FETCH. Not only will your kid thank you for the good food, but you can score some sweet gift cards to treat yourself to a Starbucks on the way home from dropping your student off at school.

Lunch Box Breakdown

Even with increasing costs and decreased spending, the general composition of school lunches hasn’t changed much…That means even with more financial pressure, kids with cold lunches are still getting familiar types of food each day.

Now let’s crack that lunch box open.

Sandwiches represent the pillar of a packed lunch. It’s the item that allows for the most creativity…not only can the fillings be vastly different, but how those fillings are held differ as well. Regardless of the flexibility offered by the humble sandwich (or wrap), a good old fashioned sandwich using white bread remains the most popular. What’s between those fluffy pieces of grainy goodness? Probably lunch meat as it sold 4 times more units than peanut butter this year (ham and turkey were more popular kinds of lunch meat). 

BUT peanut butter is having an it moment. While lunch meat purchasing has decreased (both in units and per household), peanut butter has sold more and not just within the same household! And this is really something when we look at shelf stability: that lunch meat requires repurchasing with its short shelf-life, while peanut butter is a pantry staple.

Potato chips (Lays, specifically) are the most purchased salty snack, and even with a 9% decrease in units sold, the other salty snack contenders (tortilla chips, popcorn, and cheese snacks) cannot make up that ground. Potato chips are the most affordable salty snack ($3.15 per unit), even with a 20% increase in unit price. To put it even more in perspective: the number of potato chip units sold was almost 9/10 the number of cereal units sold. 

Interestingly, popcorn and pretzels remain a cult favorite of school lunches, with purchasing patterns changing the least for these groups. These aren’t cheaper options and each have experienced 15-23% increases in unit costs, but they may be perceived as healthier.

Ah, the old salty sweet conundrum. Crackers or cookies? I say both, and parents agree.

Last year kids were lovingly spoiled with almost 389,000 units of cookies being sold – about 10,000 more units than crackers that were sold. 2022 was a different year and parents pulled a switcheroo by reprioritizing crackers, instead purchasing about 10,000 more units of crackers (lots of cheese crackers) than cookies. Sandwich cookies represented the favorite cookie type.

What could have driven this change? Perhaps cost, as cookies are not only more expensive per unit ($3.62 compared to crackers’ $3.49), but they also saw the highest unit price increase from last year (18%).

Did you peel your string cheese or bite it as a log? Honestly, kids these days are probably doing neither because string cheese has suffered the greatest decrease in units purchased this year compared to last year of all of the cheese options. As one of the most expensive options ($5.44) with one of the higher unit price increases from last year to this year (16%), parents might not see the value.

Of all the school lunch categories investigated, yogurt cups/pouches purchases were the most similar between 2021 and 2022. While regular calorie yogurt is still preferred, light yogurt is picking up steam showing an increase in units purchased this year compared to last year. With comparable prices ($1.83 for regular, $1.89 for light), households may opt to try the healthier option. In fact, we see an increase in units sold of Greek yogurt (up 8%), relative to traditional dairy yogurt (down 11%). Exotic Icelandic yogurt has also shown an increase in units sold AND an increase in units sold per household as more people jump on the bandwagon. (The low cost and lower increase in unit cost may also be helping them out). 

Perhaps due to the higher sugar content or the jump in unit price from last year, sports drinks are hitting a low point this school season compared to last, at least when it comes to student lunches.  Sports drinks were the only lunch food category to experience a decrease in spend per household (yes, that’s even with the cost rising). Units purchased is down 24% from last year, while the unit price has increased 19% from $2.34 to $2.79. Even though sports drinks are not the most expensive school food category, parents may be deciding that sports drinks are not a necessary part of a kids’ meal and are cutting them in response to financial pressures. 

Nutrition bars are also less popular this year, but they are less popular to begin with. With a decrease in units sold this year (down 14%), the cost of nutrition bars may not be worth it to frugal parents who may prefer to reallocate that money to other aspects of their child’s lunch, such as yogurt.

These are some of the fastest growing products this school season compared to last year. Hint: There’s a lot of comfort food goodness (both salty and sweet)!

Fetch Methodology

1. Data from last year covers purchases between weeks 34-38, August 15-September 18, 2021, while data from this covers August 14 – Sept 17, 2022. it uses a 24 month panel of users to adjust for Fetch’s user growth

2. Back to school lunch categories include: salty snacks, breads & wraps, cheese, cookies & crackers, condiments & jams, yogurt single serve units, lunchmeat, cereals, sports drinks, meal combos, dry pasta/noodles, individual fruit juices, nutrition bars, and fruit & vegetable snacks.

Author: Amanda Jeppson

Contributor: Hsiao-Chien Wei