At the turn of the 20th century, school lunch as we know it didn’t exist. Most children went home for their meal; if they had a few cents in their pocket, they bought a less-than-healthy treat from a street vendor. In the decades that followed, the forces of business, public health, and politics would transform school lunches into a communal experience filled with adolescent power struggles, branded lunch boxes, and heaping portions of mystery meat. Here’s how the midday meal has evolved through the years.
Most schoolchildren at lunch at home in the 1900s.
The vast majority of children in the early 1900s went home for lunch. In some rural communities, children would bring food from home to school. If their teacher was industrious, students might bring ingredients for a communal stew cooked in a kettle. As more and more parents took jobs in factories and elsewhere outside the home, many children were left without food options. In cities like Boston and Philadelphia, organizations like the Women's Education and Industrial Union began providing meals for schoolchildren. Elementary school children were given crackers, soup, and milk. At Boston’s Trade School for Girls, lunch selections included celery soup with croutons, stuffed tomatoes, apple shortcake, baked beans and brown bread, and cocoa to drink—prepared by the girls as part of their domestic science program.
In the 1910s, volunteer organizations provided school lunches.
Volunteer organizations became the main source for low-cost and subsidized school lunches. By 1912, more than 40 cities across the U.S. offered programs through groups like the New York School Lunch Committee, which offered three-cent meals. Kids didn’t get much for their money [PDF]: Pea soup, lentils, or rice and a piece of bread was a common offering. If students had an extra cent, they could spring for an additional side like stewed prunes, rice pudding, or a candied apple. In rural communities, parent-teacher committees pooled their resources. Pinellas County in Florida started a program that served meat-and-potato stew to schoolchildren using ingredients donated by parents. Even with these innovative efforts, there was still concern about hunger and malnutrition amongst America’s schoolchildren.
The 1920s ushered in the hot school lunch.
The emphasis on providing a “hot lunch” took hold during this era. By the early '20s, more and more kids were chowing down on stews, boiled meats, creamed vegetables, and bread. But health experts warned that these meals were nutritionally deficient. In an editorial, The Journal of Home Economics had worried that parents and community lunch programs, left to their own devices, would let children consume nothing but coffee, potato chips, pickles, and “frankforters.” Schools listened, and many began tracking students’ health and teaching them how to cook. The practice of home economics teachers having girls prepare nutritionally balanced lunches became even more widespread, and these kitchens gradually became professional operations, paving the way for the modern cafeteria-and-kitchen setup.
Surplus farm commodities transformed school lunches in the 1930s.
In the wake of the Great Depression, the federal government authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy up surplus food from farmers and funnel it into school lunch programs. As a result, schools began serving a lot more beef, pork, butter, and other commodities. But people like anthropologist Margaret Mead still pushed for balanced meals. Relief organizations in New York City served up fresh apples, bananas, vegetable soups, and peanut butter sandwiches to children. Some of these early attempts to produce nutritious meals on a budget produced oddball recipes. One guide published by the USDA, for instance, recommended combining peanut butter with cottage cheese or salad dressing to make a sandwich filling.
The National School Lunch Act expanded access to school lunches in the 1940s—but didn’t improve the menu.
By the early 1940s, every U.S. state had federally supported lunch programs in place. However, during World War II, funding and the number of available workers dropped, leaving many children without meals. After the war, Congress passed the National School Lunch Act, which further expanded the availability of school lunches. The program still relied on agricultural surplus, which meant schools often got food they couldn’t use. “Perishable foods rotted en route to schools or arrived unannounced at schools that could not refrigerate them,” wrote Harvey Levenstein in Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in America. A USDA guide to menu planning using farm surpluses included recipes for creamed chipped beef, Spanish rice and bacon, cornmeal pudding, fruit shortcake, and a pork hash known as scrapple. During WWII, the government recognized the need to balance rationing and children's nutrition, so the War Food Administration began offering financial aid to certain agencies to buy school food locally.
Private food companies got into the school lunch business in the 1950s.
Feeding young Baby Boomers meant school districts had to ramp up production in a big way. In addition to traditional hot lunches, many began serving cold lunches, which included a variety of sandwiches, cottage cheese, pork and apple salads, tomato wedges, and ice cream. By 1952, school lunch had become a $415 million business. Private companies, eager for a slice of the action, began contracting with school districts. Branded lunchboxes themed to TV shows like Gunsmoke and Hopalong Cassidy began appearing on lunch tables. With the postwar food industry rapidly growing, children were fed rich, protein-heavy dishes like cheese meatloaf, sausage shortcake, ham and bean scallop, and orange coconut custard with cottage cheese.
The 1960s introduced pizza to school lunch menus.
Foods once considered ethnic, like pizza, enchiladas, and chili con carne, made their way onto school menus. Kids could also rely on traditional favorites like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and fish sticks with tartar sauce. Many school districts centralized their lunch production. In New York’s central facility, 100 workers each produced 300 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches per hour, while dozens of vats hard-boiled eggs en masse. At the same time, national attention turned to the millions of needy schoolchildren who still didn’t receive federally funded lunches. In 1966, Lyndon Johnson signed the Child Nutrition Act, which expanded the availability of school lunches across the country.
Fast food took over school cafeterias in the 1970s.
Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains didn’t stand a chance against the rising tide of fast food. Impressed with the efficiency and popularity of Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s, schools put hamburgers, French fries, and other greasy fare on their menus. A 1974 lunch menu from the Houston school district included chiliburgers, hamburgers, oven fried chicken, buttered corn, and fruit gelatin. As federal nutrition standards continued to weaken, vending and foodservice companies brought chips, candy bars, and other treats to schools as well. In 1979, the USDA put out guidelines that said school lunches needed only to provide “minimum nutritional value.”
The government classified ketchup as a vegetable in 1980s school lunches.
In 1981, the federal lunch program made headlines after changes to nutrition guidelines classified ketchup as a vegetable. The guidelines were a response to early '80s budget cutting, which reduced the school lunch program by $1 billion. It was also a defining moment for an era when processed food creations ruled the cafeteria. Chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, and rectangular pizza slices were always on the menu, along with chocolate pudding, Jell-O, and sliced fruit drenched in syrup. Those that brought their lunch sported Handi-Snacks, Fruit Roll-Ups, and pouches of Capri Sun. In the late '80s, a handful of Oscar Mayer employees tasked with selling more of the company’s bologna came up with one of the best-selling kids' products of all time: Lunchables.
Fast food franchises set up shop in school cafeterias in the 1990s—and childhood obesity rates began to climb.
Rather than try to imitate fast food, in the '90s many schools simply let fast food operators into their cafeterias. Federal government standards allowed McDonald’s, Little Caesar’s, Chick-fil-A, and others to set up shop. The exchange was agreeable for both sides: Schools happily accepted funding, while fast food companies were eager to reach young consumers. For their subsidized lunches, schools increasingly turned to foodservice companies like Marriott and Sodexo. Lunch bags and boxes, meanwhile, overflowed with indulgent gems like Dunkaroos, Gushers, Teddy Grahams, Ecto Coolers and bottles of Squeeze-It. It was a delicious time for kids, but with obesity rates on the rise, certainly not the healthiest.
School lunches got healthier in the 2000s.
By 2005, half of all U.S. schools offered fast food in their cafeterias, with an even higher percentage carrying soda and snack vending machines. School districts across the country were conflicted. On the one hand, they needed the revenue that companies like Pepsi and McDonald’s provided. But on the other hand, they couldn’t overlook soaring obesity rates. Many began tweaking their menus, hoping to entice kids with dishes like grilled jerk chicken, barbecued pork sandwiches, and fresh (instead of canned) fruits and vegetables. Natural and organic food companies like Stonyfield Farm and Annie’s entered the kids’ snack market.
School lunch menus began to offer fresh, more nutritious foods in the 2010s.
In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, a politically contentious bill that required officials to revamp the federal lunch program’s nutrition standards, while first lady Michelle Obama made kids’ nutrition and fitness a priority with her Let’s Move campaign. Healthy eating gained cultural momentum, too, with celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver promoting fresh, local dishes for kids. Some schools installed vegetable gardens, and many began feeding students meals that would have seemed downright strange two decades prior. Houston’s schools, for one, now offer turkey hot dogs, roasted summer squash, and fresh broccoli florets in addition to pizza, cheeseburgers, and chicken nuggets. Although the ultimate impact of school lunch reform isn't clear, one thing is: At more than $10 billion a year, school lunch is a big business.
A version of this story was originally published in 2016; it has been updated for 2021.