Microwaveable Entrees Freeze Out Brown Bag Lunch Meetings

The Dallas Historical Society this week released a schedule for its upcoming "brown bag lunch" series, an institution some statistics suggest is rapidly becoming quaint.

Brown bag lunches continue to thrive in academic settings, where professorial types are happy to have the chance to lunch on their own sandwiches of sprouts and Vegenaise, but fewer political events, union meetings and outreach campaigns are now being organized around the brown bag concept.

According to Google, the number of newsy references to "brown bag lunches" -- a category that includes announcements from Podunk papers and transcripts from local television stations -- began steadily declining in 2008, with 2010 producing half as many "brown bag" mentions as the previous year. References to brown bag series and seminars are equally scant.

There's no evidence the practice of brown-bagging is losing popularity. To the contrary, a much-quoted 2008 study discovered 12 percent of workplace "lunchtime opportunities" were spent on meals brought from home. "Brown bagging has been on the rise every year we look at it," Harry Balzer, vice president of research firm The NPD Group, told Brandweek.

NPD also learned the brown bag item gaining the most traction with lunchers is the frozen entrée, which may help explain why brown bagging is no longer considered a social occasion. It's difficult to rally a meeting of brown baggers when there's only one available microwave.

"We're seeing yogurt and frozen entrees gaining in popularity in carried lunches, and lunchmeat sandwiches, chips, or ham sandwiches declining," Arnie Schwartz of NPD said when the study was released.

When the U.S. economy last became mired in a deep recession, brown bag get-togethers were tremendously popular -- even at the White House.

In June, 1975, Betty Ford invited 107 members of the Republican Congressional Wives Club to the South Lawn for a brown bag lunch. At a club meeting earlier that year, Ford had joked: "I might have to ask you to brown bag it. With inflation, my husband is after me to cut down."

Concerns about the brown bag's demise date back decades. In 1958, writer Hugh A. Mulligan bemoaned the three-martini lunch's usurpation of the noon hour in a column that was reprinted nationally.

"Today the brown-bagger still exists in isolated pockets in our frenzied society," Mulligan wrote. "But he has gone underground for fear of being detected. Instead of carrying his sack of sandwiches with pride and a swagger, he conceals them in the deep recesses of his attaché case."

But in Wisconsin, at least, the current trend may soon turn. Gov. Scott Walker, who made brown bags a central theme of his campaign, this year ordered cabinet officials to hold regular brown bag lunches with employees.

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Hanna Raskin
Contact: Hanna Raskin