The History of School Lunch

I spent a lot of time this past week thinking about school lunch in America. I had an amazing opportunity to volunteer at my son’s school. Part of the volunteer gig was eating school lunch with my son and his class. It was a really interesting experience. For once I was the popular one in the lunchroom that everyone wanted to sit by. It isn’t every day that a parent gets to eat with the kids in the lunchroom.

It has been many many years since I’ve eaten school lunch. Surprisingly, not much has changed. However, I was surprised at what I was served. In recent years, there has been a lot of buzz nation wide about the “healthy” lunches that are provided to kids. However, I was served a whole wheat breadstick, chocolate milk, a piece of pizza, a vegetable and a fruit. It wasn’t the greatest meal I’ve ever had, but I was able to get it down. 

As I left the lunch room I could see that several kids weren’t even touching their fruit and vegetable. Many decided all they wanted was the slice of pizza. With my experience I decided that I needed to dive deep into the history of school lunch. 

History of School Lunch in America

School lunch in America started as a charitable outreach by many private companies and sponsors. The first unofficial school lunch program started in 1853. Children’s Aid opened its first industrial school for children living in poverty. Part of their mission and charity was to provide school lunch to their students. 

In 1894 Boston high schools started serving nutritionally sound meals at affordable prices to children who wouldn’t have otherwise had them. This kickstarted similar programs in other cities across the country.

By 1900 school lunch in America was served to children in many cities across the country. These meals were carefully prescribed by nutritionists. The lunches were developed to ensure that each student consumed the number of calories needed to maximize their learning potential. 

Very Real Hurdles To Offering School Lunch

School lunch in America still hadn’t become incredibly widespread. Kids would go home for lunch. Rural communities faced many challenges with this because they weren’t able to go home easily and had to bring a lunch from home. Some teachers would get creative and have a communal stew that they would cook on top of the stove used to heat the classroom. 

There were many limitations to school lunches in the early days. They lacked infrastructure and space to actually serve lunch. They didn’t have dedicated employees and schools weren’t built with a dining hall in mind. We take our large cafeterias, complete with professional kitchens, for granted in today’s schools. 

In 1946 the National School Lunch Act into law was signed into law. This was less about concern for feeding America’s children, and more about nutrition-related war-readiness. 

President Truman said, “It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the States, through grants-in aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of food and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation and expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs.”

The National School Lunch Act Brings The Government Into The Lunchroom

After the National School Lunch Act was signed, schools still struggled with a way to support it. They didn’t magically add kitchens and dining halls overnight. Those were still real constraints to the program. However, many schools turned to food service corporations who would make meals ahead of time and deliver them to the schools. 

The school lunch program is still a very popular federal program even today. For many students below the poverty level, the program ensures they get a breakfast and lunch every school day. Sadly this may be the only complete meal they get in the day.

In 1981, the Reagan Administration cut school lunch funding by $1.5 billion dollars. They also controversially changed the nutritional requirements. This allowed for items like ketchup and pickle relish to count as vegetables. Naturally, the nutritional quality tanked. School lunch then became a battlefield over money and funding.

In 2010, the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act was signed into law. This updated the school lunch system to where it is today. This brought the menus in line with current nutritional guidance. There is an emphasis on  whole grains and vegetables. There are also strict guidelines on what qualifies as whole grain and what qualifies as a proper vegetable. 

School Lunch in America By The Decade

I found this great article by Mental Floss highlighting what school lunch was like through the decades. I have covered much of the history up to the 1950s. I’ll pick up there for this following list. 


The school lunches of the 1950s became a mix of hot and cold lunches. Many private companies began to realize the business opportunity with school lunch. The cold lunches had a variety of sandwiches and salads. The hot lunches were rich and heavy. They had dishes like cheese meatloaf, sausage shortcake, ham and bean scallop and orange coconut custard. Themed lunch boxes also became a thing where popular shows started appearing on lunch pails. I am definitely going to have to find a recipe for sausage shortcake. That sounds right up my alley. 


School districts started to centralize lunch production. Pizza, enchiladas and chili con carne start appearing on school menus. Children that were still in need started receiving more attention. In 1966, President Johnson signed the Child Nutrition Act into law. This expanded the school lunch program to even more kids in need.


In 1979, the USDA, which controls the school lunch program, put out guidelines that dramatically weakened the nutritional quality of school lunches. Their directive was for school lunches to provide minimum nutritional value. During the 1970s hamburgers, fried chicken and buttered corn started finding their way onto school lunch menus. 


During the 1980s, Oscar Meyer developed Lunchables. This made cheap and low quality nutrition readily available for the lunches kids brought from home. Other products like fruit roll ups, handi snacks and capri sun also found their way into sack lunches. The same unhealthy pizza, chicken nuggets, burgers and fries remained staples on the school lunch menu.


In the 90’s schools let fast food companies into the school. McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A and Little Caeser’s all found their way into the school lunch room. This provided more funding for lunch programs as the fast food industry did whatever it took to make it into the lunchroom. 


With a host of unhealthy options available for students, school started to tweak menus. The changes were subtle, but paved the way for 2010.


The  Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act was signed into law. This leads us to where we are today. I read in the news a few weeks ago that President Trump wants to weaken nutritional guidelines again. Undoing much of what the Obama Administration put into place.

Where School Lunch Is Today

The school lunch program will continue to change and evolve. The direction that they will ultimately go remains to be seen. Even though the Obama Administration made changes to the nutritional quality, what I experienced wasn’t necessarily a “healthy” meal. I also observed kids tossing their veggies and fruits instead of eating them. 

Meaningful change takes time. Kids that aren’t used to eating veggies and fruits at home will be unlikely to embrace them in the cafeteria. However, this doesn’t mean efforts to change should be abandoned. On the contrary, anyone with kids knows that it is hard to get them to eat their veggies. I have gotten really good at hiding the veggies in a variety of soups and other dishes. School districts simply need to do the same. 

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The Sorry State of School Lunch in America
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