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An illustration of a school lunch tray with soda, fries, pizza, and half a banana.

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Why school lunches feel like they’re frozen in time

The fascinating history behind why students today are still eating square pizzas, crinkle fries, and cartons of milk.

Part of The Schools Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

A tray of lunch foods including square pizza, milk, and crinkle fries: Remember school lunch?
A cafeteria with students lining up for lunch: The concept probably conjures up images of plastic trays, mystery meats, syrupy fruit, and square pizza. Unhealthy meals, served daily.
A cafeteria worker in front of a school lunch menu including pizza, fruit and milk: If you haven’t visited an American school cafeteria in a while, you might be surprised to find today’s menus are awfully similar to that quaint stereotype of the school lunch.
A timeline of school lunches all including pizza drawn on a composition book: But how did school lunch develop into that classic tray of kid cuisine? And why haven’t students’ meals evolved the way other educational trends have? The history of how our school lunches came to be reveals the huge, complicated task of feeding our nation’s children — and why it’s so difficult to make a change.
Late 19th century school setting, admins discussing: American schools first started serving meals at the turn of the 20th century, when education became compulsory. Man 1: “We are in a unique position to provide meals to our children. We shall teach them healthy eating habits!” Man 2:  It will help them physically and mentally! Such a simple concept.
A bowl of chowder and baked beans: Philadelphia and Boston were the first to offer such programs, with the help of women’s groups, welfare organizations, and home economics students. The response was so positive that the programs expanded. By 1912, there were more than 40 voluntary school lunch programs nationwide.
A farmer, a laborer, and a child. FDR is in the center, observing them then turning to his left. On the right side of the panel, a meeting with a blackboard with “New Deal Ideas” chalked on it: Spurred by the Great Depression, the federal government got involved in the 1930s. Farmer: I have too many crops! Laborer: I’m out of work! Child: I’m hungry! FDR: Hmm … Let’s buy up the surplus crops and employ laborers to cook and serve them in schools!
Row of lunch workers offering out trays, including chipped beef, rice & bacon, puddings, fruit shortcake, scrapple, boiled carrots: By 1941, federally supported school meals were being served in every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
WWII war scene, where a general is on a field telephone: With pressure from military leaders, who equated healthy kids with strong potential soldiers, Congress passed the National School Lunch Act in 1946. It established a program to provide low-cost or free lunch to qualified students through school subsidies. About 7.1 million children participated in the NSLP that year. General: Tell Washington we need to feed our future soldiers. It’s a matter of national security!
Back at the school lunch counter, breakfast of oranges, whole wheat bread, peanut butter, milk is being served: From there, federal meal programs expanded. The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 increased subsidies and started a pilot program to offer breakfast, which became permanent in 1975.
Array of food items, like cornmeal rolls and breaded meats: Much of the food being served came from the same source as FDR’s New Deal lunches: surplus from farms. Dairy farm with cows being loaded off a trailer: The USDA bought the surplus cows for meat, what was called the “Whole Herd Buyout.” This excess meat and dairy led to more cheeseburgers, tacos, and pizza on school menus. The fat content in school lunches skyrocketed.
Reagan, in meeting with staff, at a table with some food items in front of them: This was happening right as the Reagan administration was looking to cut government spending. In 1981, the school lunch budget was slashed by $1.46 billion.  Reagan: Schools can reduce portion sizes, right? Staffer 1: What about nutritional standards? Staffer 2: Does ketchup count as a vegetable? Staffer 3: How about pickle relish?
A tractor trailer pulled up to a school carrying stacks of pre-made heat-and-eat meal boxes. The superintendent is signing for the delivery: The spending cuts also meant fewer children were eligible for free or reduced lunch. To compensate, districts turned to privatized meal solutions, which typically meant cheap, processed foods. Teacher: What is this? Superintendent: It’s what we can afford.
A USDA worker flips through a report. The same superintendent with stacks of processed foods: Childhood obesity rates climbed. In 1990, the government tried implementing new dietary guidelines, but schools already had a supply of high-fat foods that were more cost-effective than nutritious options. USDA: Only 1% of schools are complying with the new guidelines! What happened to teaching healthy eating habits? Superintendent: What’s more important: nutrition, or feeding as many kids as we can?
One student is holding a tray with a fast food chicken sandwich on it, another is buying a soda from a vending machine: Convenience also played a role. Fast food suppliers contracted with schools, and vending machines started to appear in their halls and cafeterias. Student: If we don’t like the lunch options, we can buy stuff from here!
1% milk, veggies, turkey hot dogs: Health and nutrition remained a huge concern. The Obama administration attempted the next big overhaul: the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This allowed for another USDA revision of school dietary standards and funding for free breakfast and lunch in high-poverty communities.
People lined up, protest-style: The new guidelines led to backlash from Republican lawmakers, dairy and fast food lobbyists, and even from the students themselves. Lawmaker: It’s another example of Washington’s regulatory excess! Parent and a lobbyist: Bring back our whole milk! Student: The meals aren’t big enough! I’m hungry again an hour later.
Children at a lunch table, looking disgustedly at their food: Many districts found that the healthier meals didn’t appeal to every student. Kids would rather throw out the meals than eat food they considered boring or unappetizing. Food Waste Warrior, a project funded by the World Wildlife Fund, estimated in 2019 that total food waste in schools costs as much as $1.7 billion per school year.
William J. McCarthy, professor of public health and psychology, University of California Los Angeles, holding up a quinoa salad: Several food service directors, while recognizing waste as a problem, say the answer is to wait it out. Research shows that children may need to be exposed to vegetables 10 to 12 times before they will eat them on their own.
Quinoa salad, lentil cutlets, pad Thai, vegetable curry: In Los Angeles County, that meant continuing to serve the vegetarian menus they had introduced as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
A lunch person serving a slice of whole wheat pizza, panned out to show empty lunch room: When the district started seeing fewer and fewer students eating in their cafeterias, they tried healthier versions of lunch room standards. That didn’t work, either. Lunch person: Whole-wheat pizza, anyone?
Students eating tacos and pizza: So, they went back to serving some familiar items. This was typical of school districts across the country and was made easier by the Trump administration when, in 2017, they rolled back some of the sodium, milk, and whole-grain standards implemented by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
Now it’s 2021. Roughly 30 million children rely on the USDA’s National School Lunch Program. What does their typical school lunch look like?   Portion sizes have fluctuated and produce appears more frequently…but we still see some menu mainstays. Over the past century, the goal of the American school lunch hasn’t changed: have nutritious food be a regular part of a child’s day. But it still seems we’re falling short. Until we check all the boxes, some meals are most likely here to stay.


Revenge of the Lunch Lady, HuffPo

An Abbreviated History of School Lunch in America, Time
School Lunch infographic, Advancement Courses

Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet, Harvey Levenstein
PBS The History Kitchen: History of School Lunch
Is whole milk illegal in New York?, PolitiFact
No Appetite for Good-For-You School Lunches, The New York Times

Ally Shwed is a cartoonist and visual journalist whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Nib, and The Intercept. She lives in Belmar, NJ with her cartoonist husband and their two cats.


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