Oddly enough, the history of school lunch is somewhat related the history of the American military. It’s the story of how the U.S. went from "too malnourished to draft" in World War II to "too fat to fight" in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After World War II, General Lewis Hershey, director of the Selective Service System, testified before Congress that more than a third of rejected draftees suffered from poor nutrition. This spurred the creation of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
Fast-forward to the present day. In April 2010, a group of retired generals released a report called "Too Fat to Fight”, lamenting that 27 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24 weigh too much to join the military.
Throughout the 20th century, the school lunch menu went from a military strategy to an underfunded and forgotten health risk. Fortunately, a new movement to get healthier food options into America’s schools is gathering steam. The abridged timeline below chronicles the history of school lunch.
1930s: A Depressing Start
Schools around the country have experimented with providing lunch to students since the late 1800s, but federal involvement with school lunch began during the Great Depression. In an effort to stabilize prices, the government bought surplus crops from farmers, donated them to schools, and hired unemployed women to cook school lunches.
1940s: School Lunch Gets Serious
The NSLP officially began in 1946, in the wake of General Hershey’s testimony regarding malnourished WWII draftees. As part of the program, the Department of Agriculture would reimburse schools for each meal served, with the requirement that it contain a serving of protein, bread, two fruits or vegetables, whole milk, and a pat of butter or fortified margarine. "In some ways, school lunch didn't look so different in the '40s and '50s than it looks now, except that everything was prepared from scratch and from whole foods," says Janet Poppendieck, author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America.
However, in the early days, affluent schools benefitted most from the program. New suburban schools built to house Baby Boomers had room to install kitchen equipment, while older, cramped urban schools did not.
1960s: The Laws of Lunch
In the 1960s, a renewed focus on the problem of hunger changed that. The Child Nutrition Act of 1966—and other laws passed in the subsequent five years—completely overhauled the school lunch program. The legislation created uniform standards for free and reduced-price meals, provided federal funding, and allowed large school districts to cook their meals in central kitchens—a way around the lack of facilities in individual schools. Participation in the NSLP skyrocketed.
1970s: Vending Machine Wars
In the mid 1970s, vending machines selling candy and soda began to appear in schools. The Secretary of Agriculture initially restricted the items that could be sold, but a lawsuit won by the National Soft Drink Association declared that regulations could apply only to food sold in the cafeteria. Food manufacturers started viewing children as customers.
1980s: Less Money = More Fat
The move towards fast-food style school lunches accelerated in the 1980s. The Reagan administration cut federal programs across the board, including a one-third reduction in school lunch reimbursement. Schools turned to processed and frozen food that could be bought in bulk and then defrosted or reheated. "The most cost-effective protein source is meat as a commodity—a truckload of chicken nuggets," says Kathryn Strong, a dietician with Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an organization pushing for school-lunch reforms. As a result of the cut in funding, high-fat and low-fiber foods—many containing trans fats—became the basis of meals.
2000s: A Healthy Revolution
"Now we have a revolution going the other way," Poppendieck says. There have been some systemic reforms. Lunches today must meet the 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which limit fat and saturated fat, and the school lunch menu also must provide a third of a child's daily protein, calories, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and calcium.
There are dozens of organizations working to reform school lunch, including the Chez Panisse Foundation, which overhauled lunch in the 10,000-student Berkeley (Calif.) Unified School District to serve from-scratch meals made of fresh ingredients. There's also Let's Move!, a government initiative spearheaded by Michelle Obama to encourage exercise and healthy eating by children.
2010s: The Future of School Food
The most important opportunity for school-lunch reform is happening right now: The Child Nutrition Act, which controls the NSLP and many other food programs, is up for reauthorization this year (it must be reauthorized every five years). Bills have passed both House and Senate committees and are making their way to the floor of Congress.
These bills contain major reforms, including a provision giving the Secretary of Agriculture authority to regulate foods sold outside the cafeteria, effectively eliminating soda and junk food from schools. The laws, if passed, will also provide money for farm-to-cafeteria programs and for equipment such as salad bars. One big change is an additional subsidy for schools that meet more stringent nutrition standards created by the Institute of Medicine. These standards distinguish between types of vegetables, so that tater tots aren't equivalent to fresh spinach (current standards consider all vegetables the same). The subsidy is small, but "if it makes it into the final bill, it's a foot in the door," says Poppendieck.
"What we serve at school teaches kids what we think is healthy food," Poppendieck says. The childhood obesity epidemic isn't all the fault of school lunch, but reforms can take us a long way.