Tales from the Trail

The Lunchbox Index

November 16, 2010

GERMANYThe Dow, the FTSE, the Hang Seng — all these are economic indices of a sort. But in Washington, there’s another index that might offer a more intimate picture of people under economic pressure, and it’s as near as the office fridge. Let’s call it the Lunchbox Index.

Decades ago, lunching out used to be an integral part of the Washington working day, with expense account palaces like the long-gone Sans Souci filled to capacity with the great, the good, the powerful and, yes, journalists pumping their sources.

That still goes on, but more often than not, lunch is a meal to be grabbed on the fly, close to a phone and a computer. Even a take-out lunch can be costly: soup or a sandwich is easily $6, a substantial salad $10. Want a cookie for dessert? That’ll be $3, please. Even those who can afford the time to go out to lunch might have second thoughts about paying $20 or more for a daily mid-day meal.

SPACE SHUTTLEEnter the Lunchbox Index, a totally unscientific measure of how financially pressed Washingtonians can feel in economic hard times.

Just a peek into even our office fridge, which is probably like other office refrigerators around town, shows it’s crammed with leftover-filled plastic containers, plastic supermarket bags filled with home-packed food, clear plastic zipper bags of chopped salad vegetables and lunchboxes of every description, plus a door-full of well-aged condiments. The freezer compartment is loaded with boxes of diet meals and a few cold packs.

Could the Lunchbox Index — the increasing amount of packed lunches during hard times — be a real barometer of economic stress? It may be a straw in the wind. The U.S. Agriculture Department reported this week that 14.7 percent of U.S. households were “food insecure” at least some time during 2009, which means that 17.4 million households had trouble getting enough food last year DSCN0092due to a lack of resources. That was about the same level of food insecurity as 2008, and the highest recorded rate of U.S. food insecurity since 1995 when the first national food security survey was conducted.

The National Restaurant Association doesn’t track data by “daypart” — lunch vs dinner — and thus can’t say whether people are bringing lunches from home more often. But the association’s Annika Stensson said in an e-mail that sales at quick service restaurants, including delis and other places that provide lunch options, have grown over the last few years.

“This year, we project quick service sales to reach $164.8 billion, up 3.0% nominal (0.4% real) over last year’s sales,” Stensson wrote. “In comparison, the restaurant industry as a whole is projected to post sales of $580 billion, up 2.5% nominal (negative 0.1% real) this year.”

The association’s research finds that 41 percent of Americans said in April 2010 that they’d like to dine out more than they do, up from 31 percent who said so in October 2007.

In Washington, though, there are alternatives for those who can’t pack a lunch but don’t want to pay the price of a sit-down restaurant. Roving food trucks, trackable on Twitter, supply the essentials of a take-out lunch, from cupcakes to burritos to lobster rolls to crepes to soup. The Washington Post has a handy guide for the hungry and frugal.

Photo credits: REUTERS/Manuela Hartling (Children with organic food lunchboxes at Marienfelde Klepert elementary school in Berlin August 25, 2003)

REUTERS/NASA TV (Astronaut Steve Robinson shows his “Space Cadet” metal lunchbox as he prepares for his second spacewalk in the airlock of Discovery August 1, 2005)

REUTERS/Deborah Zabarenko (Washington bureau refrigerator, November 16, 2010)

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