The History of School Lunches: The Most Glorious Hour of My Childhood

Students eating lunch at Randolph Henry High School in Virginia, June 1943.
Student eating lunch at Randolph Henry High School in Virginia, June 1943.

Very early on in my schooling, I learned to appreciate 11:30 a.m.  This time signified freedom, a reprieve from classroom instruction, an opportunity to catch up with my friends and a nice, enjoyable, hot meal.  It was the time of day our class would enjoy school lunch and it was most always the best and most delicious hour of the day.

Fast-forward to 2019 and you’ll be hard pressed to find a student, school staff member, parent, or even a politician who doesn’t have some type of strong opinion about this subject — in our hyper-political society, even something as once special as school lunches is no longer not without controversy.

But perhaps this should come as no surprise, as the history of school lunches has always created significant debate and may prove to be far more interesting than most might imagine.

The first school lunch was introduced in Germany in 1790 by Benjamin Thompson, a former American colonist who maintained loyalties to the Crown during the Revolutionary War.  After the conflict, Thompson left the country and moved to Europe where he dedicated his life to feeding and clothing the poor.

It would take more than a century, however, for Thompson’s idea of schools providing lunches to their students to take hold in the United States.

In the United States school lunches were first provided in larger cities by volunteers around the turn of the century.  Soon after, teachers began noticing the benefits of students who had enjoyed a hot-prepared meal as the children’s mental and physical prowess had greatly expanded in a short period of time.

It would ultimately take the Great Depression for the United States school lunch program to be fully realized, some 150 years after its introduction in Germany.  With farmers struggling to sell their products and labor markets so badly stressed that many families were unable to properly feed their children, the government found a solution to both problems by providing school lunches: Starving children would have access to at least one good meal each day and hurting farmers would now have a market to sell their excess products.

In the years that followed, the National School Lunch Program would focus on defeating malnutrition in the United States by offering students access to high-caloric meals. Though this plan worked exceptionally well during a time period when the United States was facing extreme national poverty, by the 1990s, this system had become outdated and was largely seen as contributing to national obesity.

In 2010, the United States passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which sought to address these issues.  Among other things, the new law limited milk to nonfat flavored milk or 1 percent white milk, reduced portion sizes in meals, mandated a minimum on fruit, vegetables, and whole grain servings, as well as mandated a maximum amount of sodium, sugar, and fat content in school meals.

The changes were met with great resistance and a YouTube video, produced by Wallace High School students drew national attention and nearly two million views. The video complained of its students being “hungry” and not fed well enough to participate in their extracurricular activities or sports due to reduced portion sizes relative to those prior to the new law.

In response to viewing the video, nutrition specialists explained that before the new standards were implemented, some schools may have been serving a lot of protein to keep their customers happy, “but none of us need as much protein as a lot of us eat”. The experts also explained that eating 850 calories at lunch is enough for most high schoolers.

A study of the eating habits of middle school students in Boston Public Schools concluded, “on average, students discarded roughly 19 percent of their entrées, 47 percent of their fruit, 25 percent of their milk, and 73 percent of their vegetables.” “It was estimated that $432,349.05 worth of food is wasted annually at lunch by students in Grades 6–8 in [Boston Public Schools].” Overall, this sum makes up 26.1 percent of the city schools’ food budgets, excluding labor and supplies. If translated nationally, it was estimated that roughly $1,238,846,400 in food is wasted on an annual basis as American schools.

In a society where scientists have pinpointed the exact number of calories each student receives, I sure am grateful for growing up during the glory days of America’s lunchrooms: School pizzas, mashed potatoes, red carton milk, and cookies.  Here’s a big thank you to the school cafeteria workers who made my childhood delicious!

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