How the School Lunch Program Came to Be


Have you ever stopped to consider — really consider — the school lunch? Stop making that face; it’s not that bad. And anyway, I mean the history of it.

Writing in Time, food historian Emelyn Rude looks back at how America’s school lunch program came to be and how it has developed into the robust program it is today.

School lunches have had their ups and downs. Here’s a rough timeline, culled from Rude’s eye-opening piece:

The turn of the 20th century: Most U.S. states had laws on the books requiring that all children under age 14 receive an education. Recognizing that it was necessary for children to be adequately fed in order to learn, reformers pushed for nutritious meals to be provided to students who may otherwise have gone hungry. Organizations in Philadelphia and Boston helped institute hot lunch programs in high schools, around 1894, providing hot meals to students for one penny, Rude notes.

Early 1900s: The school lunch programs, widely regarded as a great success in both feeding kids and educating them about nutrition, expanded into more cities and other areas around the country.

1930s: The U.S. government got involved in the school lunch program for the first time, hoping it would help solve some of the country’s economic problems during the Great Depression by giving struggling farmers a boost by buying their surplus crops, creating jobs by hiring cafeteria workers to cook and serve meals, and feeding poor, hungry children. “By 1941, federally supported school meals programs were operating in all States, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, with 64,298 individuals serving over 2 million lunches daily,” Rude writes.

1946: Because the number of school lunches served shrank dramatically during World War II, when food and labor were in short supply, Congress stepped in to mandate the feeding of children during their school day, passing the National School Lunch Act and making lunch a government-backed right for students nationwide.

1966: Amid program and budget growth, Congress passed the Child Nutrition Act, which increased subsidies for children from low-income homes and added school breakfast and milk programs.

1981: In a round of government budget slashing, $1.5 billion was cut from the school lunch program, resulting in smaller portions, more limited access to free or reduced-price lunches for children from low-income families, and arguably questionable methods of meeting nutritional standards. (This was the ketchup-is-a-vegetable era of the school lunch.) “This same period saw childhood obesity rates in the United States skyrocket,” Rude observes.

2010: Congress aimed to rescue the listing school-lunch program with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, with an eye toward raising nutritional standards.

2016: Though not everyone is a fan, the current school lunch program has resulted in “significant improvement in the nutritional quality of foods chosen by students,” a recent study has shown.

Bring on the salad bar! (And scuttle the mysteriously gray foods served with an ice-cream scoop.)

Photo: iStock