How school lunch has changed for kids

Jul 31, 2014 at 9:00 p.m. ET
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It's time for some school lunch perspective, straight from American history books. Hopefully this brief lesson will stop you from agonizing over whether to pack beet or kale chips in your child's lunch.

According to Lynne Oliver at Food Timeline, our modern school lunch experience is directly related to the American Industrial Revolution. Back in the 19th century, most schoolchildren simply walked home for a midday meal with their families, but everything changed when parents began working in factories. It was challenging for families to step away from work and education for a family lunch, so the school cafeteria was born.

The advent of cafeteria-style meals

So what was served in the first American school cafeterias? Not much, actually. According to a 1914 newspaper clipping from The Christian Science Monitor, parents could send their kids to school with three cents to purchase a hot lunch. A main course was typically pea soup, lentils or rice. As a side dish, children could look forward to a piece of bread — and for an additional penny, they could splurge on a delicious extra like stewed prunes or rice pudding in a cone.

We're not talking about much protein, folks. There was certainly no mention of hummus wraps or sriracha sauce. Notably, also no mention of childhood obesity.

Modern updates in the cafeteria

Thankfully, as Americans are wont to do, community leaders and legislators quickly set about perfecting the cafeteria system. Individual school districts began to improve their school lunch menus. Congress set about turning national agricultural surpluses into lunches for needy children, which started the National School Lunch Program. Instead of seeming destitute by modern standards, school lunch menus from the 40s, 50s and beyond took on the flavor of each era.

The war-hardened 1940s. Kids growing up during World War II could expect a school lunch of baked beans with bacon, cornbread and dried fruit to satisfy their midday hunger. These items were readily available through farm surpluses and didn't take commodities from the front lines.

Accommodating the baby boom in the 1950s. Feeding the baby boom wasn't easy during the 1950s. Items had to be mass-produced, and schools started to serve cold dishes instead of just hot options. How does cheese meatloaf served with a pork-apple salad sound to you? Would cottage cheese sweeten the deal?

Living large in the 1960s. By the 1960s, school lunches began to resemble more familiar fare. Why? America grew more accepting of the immigrant dishes that comprise our modern palate, like pizza, enchiladas, chili and spaghetti.

Embracing convenience in the 1970s. Interestingly, school lunches took a turn in the 1970s when the USDA began to allow vending and food-service companies to participate in the National School Lunch Program — which signaled a huge rise in chips, sodas and candy as part of the typical school lunch.

Returning to our nutritional roots

Of course, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that school lunch remains a hot topic in the public sphere. With soaring rates of childhood obesity, many educators, public health officials and legislators have joined the push for healthier school lunch offerings, unfortunately with mixed results. Perhaps, after all, the original cafeteria ladies had it right when they offered schoolchildren a choice between split pea soup and lentils for a scrumptious afternoon snack.

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