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What School Lunch Looked Like Each Decade for the Past Century

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A hundred years ago, school lunch as we know it didn’t exist. Most children went home for their meal, or if they had a few cents in their pocket, they bought a less-than-healthy treat from a street vendor. In the decades that followed, the forces of business, public health, and politics would transform school lunches into a communal experience filled with adolescent power struggles, branded lunch boxes, and heaping portions of mystery meat. Here’s how the midday meal has evolved through the years.

1900s

The vast majority of children in the early 1900s went home for lunch. In some rural communities, children would bring food from home or, if their teacher was industrious, bring ingredients for a communal stew cooked over a kettle. As more and more parents took jobs in factories and elsewhere outside the home, many children were left without food options. In cities like Boston and Philadelphia, organizations like the Women's Education and Industrial Union began providing meals for schoolchildren. Elementary school children were given crackers, soup, and milk. At Boston’s Trade School for Girls, lunch selections included celery soup with croutons, stuffed tomatoes, apple shortcake, baked beans and brown bread, and cocoa to drink—prepared by the girls as part of their domestic science program.

1910s

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Volunteer organizations became the main source for low-cost and subsidized school lunches. By 1912, more than 40 cities across the U.S. offered programs through groups like the New York School Lunch Committee, which offered 3-cent meals. Kids didn’t get much for their money [PDF]: Pea soup, lentils, or rice and a piece of bread was a common offering. If students had an extra cent, they could spring for an additional side like stewed prunes, rice pudding, or a candied apple. In rural communities, parent-teacher committees pooled their resources. Pinellas County in Florida started a program that served meat-and-potato stew to schoolchildren using ingredients donated by parents. Even with these innovative efforts, there was still massive concern about hunger and malnutrition amongst America’s schoolchildren.

1920s

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The emphasis on providing a "hot lunch" took hold during this era. By the early '20s, more and more kids were chowing down on stews, boiled meats, creamed vegetables, and bread. But health experts warned that these meals were nutritionally deficient. In an editorial, The Journal of Home Economics had earlier worried that parents and community lunch programs, left to their own devices, would let children consume nothing but coffee, potato chips, pickles, and "frankforters." Schools listened, and many began tracking students’ health and teaching them how to cook. The practice of home economics teachers having girls prepare nutritionally balanced lunches became even more widespread, and these kitchens gradually became professional operations, paving the way for the modern cafeteria-and-kitchen setup.

1930s

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In the wake of the Great Depression, the federal government authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy up surplus food from farmers and funnel it into school lunch programs. As a result, schools began serving a lot more beef, pork, butter, and other commodities. But public health advocates like Margaret Mead still pushed for balanced meals. Relief organizations in New York City served up fresh apples, bananas, vegetable soups, and peanut butter sandwiches to children. Some of these early attempts to produce nutritious meals on a budget produced oddball recipes. One guide published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for instance, recommended combining peanut butter with cottage cheese or salad dressing to make a sandwich filling.

1940s

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By the early 1940s, every U.S. state had federally supported lunch programs in place. However, during World War II, funding and the number of available workers dropped, leaving many children without meals. After the war, Congress passed the National School Lunch Act, which further expanded the availability of school lunches. The program still relied on agricultural surplus, which meant schools often got food they couldn’t use. "Perishable foods rotted en route to schools or arrived unannounced at schools that could not refrigerate them," wrote Harvey Levenstein in Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in America. A USDA guide to menu planning using farm surpluses included recipes for creamed chipped beef, Spanish rice and bacon, cornmeal pudding, fruit shortcake, and a pork mush known as scrapple. During WWII, the government recognized the need to balance rationing and children's nutrition, so the War Food Administration began offering financial aid to certain agencies to buy school food locally.

1950s

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Feeding the baby boom meant school districts had to ramp up production in a big way. In addition to traditional hot lunches, many began serving cold lunches, which included a variety of sandwiches, cottage cheese, pork and apple salads, tomato wedges, and ice cream. By 1952, school lunch had become a $415 million business. Private companies, eager for a slice of the action, began contracting with school districts. Branded lunchboxes themed to TV shows like Gunsmoke and Hopalong Cassidy began appearing on lunch tables. With postwar industry zipping along, children were fed rich, protein-heavy dishes like cheese meatloaf, sausage shortcake, ham and bean scallop, and orange coconut custard with cottage cheese.

1960s

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Foods once considered ethnic, like pizza, enchiladas, and chili con carne, made their way onto school menus. Kids could also rely on traditional favorites like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and fish sticks with tartar sauce. Many school districts centralized their lunch production. In New York’s central facility, 100 workers each produced 300 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches per hour, while dozens of vats hard-boiled eggs en masse. At the same time, national attention turned to the millions of needy schoolchildren who still didn’t receive federally funded lunches. In 1966, Lyndon Johnson signed the Child Nutrition Act, which expanded the availability of school lunches across the country.

1970s

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Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains didn’t stand a chance against the rising tide of fast food. Impressed with the efficiency and popularity of Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s, schools put hamburgers, French fries, and other greasy fare on their menus. A 1974 lunch menu from the Houston school district included chiliburgers, hamburgers, oven fried chicken, buttered corn, and fruit gelatin. As federal nutrition standards continued to weaken, vending and foodservice companies brought chips, candy bars and other treats to schools as well. In 1979, the USDA put out guidelines that said school lunches needed only to provide "minimum nutritional value."

1980s

In 1981, the federal lunch program made headlines after changes to nutrition guidelines classified ketchup as a vegetable. The guidelines were a response to early '80s budget cutting, which reduced the school lunch program by $1 billion. It was also a defining moment for an era when processed food creations ruled the cafeteria. Chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, and rectangular pizza slices were always on the menu, along with chocolate pudding, Jell-O, and sliced fruit drenched in syrup. Those that brought their lunch sported Handi-Snacks, Fruit Roll-Ups, and pouches of Capri Sun. In the late '80s, a handful of Oscar Mayer employees tasked with selling more of the company’s bologna came up with one of the best-selling kids' products of all time: Lunchables.

1990s

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Rather than try to imitate fast food, in the '90s many schools simply let fast food operators into their cafeterias. Federal government standards allowed McDonald’s, Little Caesar’s, Chick-fil-A, and others to set up shop. The exchange was agreeable for both sides: Schools happily accepted funding, while fast food companies were eager to reach young consumers. For their subsidized lunches, schools increasingly turned to foodservice companies like Marriott and Sodexo. Lunch bags and boxes, meanwhile, overflowed with indulgent gems like Dunkaroos, Gushers, Teddy Grahams, Ecto Coolers and bottles of Squeeze-It. It was a delicious time for kids, but with obesity rates on the rise, certainly not the healthiest.

2000s

Vice-President Al Gore visits a middle school cafeteria in 2000. Getty

By 2005, half of all U.S. schools offered fast food in their cafeterias, with an even higher percentage carrying soda and snack vending machines. School districts across the country were conflicted. On the one hand, they needed the revenue that companies like Pepsi and McDonald’s provided. But on the other hand, they couldn’t overlook soaring obesity rates. Many began tweaking their menus, hoping to entice kids with dishes like grilled jerk chicken, barbecued pork sandwiches, and fresh (instead of canned) fruits and vegetables. Natural and organic food companies like Stonyfield Farm and Annie’s entered the kids’ snack market.

2010s

In 2010, President Obama signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, a politically contentious bill that required officials to revamp the federal lunch program’s nutrition standards, while First Lady Michelle Obama made kids’ nutrition and fitness a priority with her Let’s Move campaign. Healthy eating gained cultural momentum, too, with celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver promoting fresh, local dishes for kids. Some schools installed vegetable gardens, and many began feeding students meals that would have seemed downright strange two decades prior. Houston’s schools, for one, now offer turkey hot dogs, roasted summer squash, and fresh broccoli florets in addition to pizza, cheeseburgers, and chicken nuggets. Although the ultimate impact of school lunch reform isn't clear, one thing is: At more than $10 billion a year, school lunch is a big business.

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Let Alexa Help You Brine a Turkey This Thanksgiving
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There’s a reason most of us only cook turkey once a year: The bird is notoriously easy to overcook. You could rely on gravy and cranberry sauce to salvage your dried-out turkey this Thanksgiving, or you could follow cooking advice from the experts.

Brining a turkey is the best way to guarantee it retains its moisture after hours in the oven. The process is also time-consuming, so do yourself a favor this year and let Alexa be your sous chef.

“Morton Brine Time” is a new skill from the cloud-based home assistant. If you own an Amazon Echo you can download it for free by going online or by asking Alexa to enable it. Once it’s set up, start asking Alexa for brining tips and step-by-step recipes customized to the size of your turkey. Two recipes were developed by Richard Blais, the celebrity chef and restaurateur best known for his Top Chef win and Food Network appearances.

Whether you go for a wet brine (soaking your turkey in water, salt, sugar, and spices) or a dry one (just salt and spices), the process isn’t as intimidating as it sounds. And the knowledge that your bird will come out succulent and juicy will definitely take some stress out of the holiday.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing

INGREDIENTS

1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.

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