News

What's for Lunch?

A food historian looks at school food programs

November 22, 2016
HIROKO MISUIKE—THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

Do you like what’s on the menu in the cafeteria? In 2010, the government passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Since then, lunches have been a topic of debate.

How School Lunch Started

In 1966, lunch included bread and butter.

hans pennink—ap
In 1966, lunch included bread and butter.

The purpose of the act was to make school lunches more healthy. But critics say the government’s standards are too strict. Some students refuse to eat what is offered.

At one time, lawmakers considered a nutritious lunch essential to the good of the nation. At the end of the 1800s, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Boston, Massachusetts, were the first two cities to offer school lunches for students.

In the 1930s, the federal government became involved in school food programs. The government hoped to accomplish three goals. It wanted to help farmers earn money, give people jobs, and feed hungry children. By 1941, school meal programs operated in every state plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. More than 2 million lunches were served daily.

During World War II, the number of school meals declined. So in 1946, Congress passed the National School Lunch Act. It said the health of the nation’s children was a matter of “national security.” The act guaranteed aid to states for “providing an adequate supply of food.”

Today, a salad an fat-free milk are on the menu

UNDERWOOD ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES
Today, a salad an fat-free milk are on the menu

In 1966, milk and breakfast programs were added. But in 1981, the government cut lunch spending by $1.5 billion. Gradually, profit-based businesses became more involved in providing school meals.

Those in favor of the current plan say it is working. Kids are getting more-nutritious meals. Still, the debate continues. The original role of school lunch was to ensure children are well-fed and healthy so they can grow, learn, and help the country. Surely we can all agree on that.


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