iStock
iStock

What School Lunch Looked Like Each Decade for the Past Century

iStock
iStock

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

Getty Images 

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

Getty Images 

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

Wikipedia Commons // Public Domain

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

Getty Images

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

Getty Images

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

Getty Images

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

Nesster, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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

wtcvidman, Youtube

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
6 Signs You're Getting Hangry
iStock
iStock

Hangry (adjective): Bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger. This portmanteau (of hungry and angry) is not only officially recognized as a word by the Oxford English Dictionary, but it's also recognized by health experts as a real physiological state with mood-altering consequences.

That hangry feeling results from your body's glucose level dropping, putting you into a state of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. Glucose is the body's primary source of energy, so when you don't have enough, it affects your brain and other bodily functions, including the production of the hormones insulin and glucagon, which help regulate blood sugar. Check out the symptoms below to see if you've crossed over into the hanger danger zone.

1. IT TAKES EVERYTHING IN YOUR POWER JUST TO KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN.

A woman naps at her desk
iStock

Glucose equals energy, so when your blood sugar levels are low, you may start wishing you were back in bed with the shades drawn. If you start feeling sluggish or tired even though you’re well-rested, you might just need to eat something.

2. THE EASIEST ITEM ON YOUR TO-DO LIST SEEMS LIKE AN IMPOSSIBLE TASK …

It’s hard to concentrate when all you can think about is whether you're going to order the fish or beef tacos for lunch. The distraction goes beyond fantasies about food, though. The brain derives most of its energy from glucose, so when it's low on fuel, a serious case of brain fog can set in. Confusion and difficulty speaking are among the more serious symptoms you may experience when you're hangry.

3. … AND YOU HAVE A BAD CASE OF WORD VOMIT.

Blame this on brain fog too. The gray matter in your noggin goes a little haywire when blood sugar is in short supply. That's why you may start stuttering or slurring your words. You might also have difficulty finding your words at all—it can feel like your mouth and brain are disconnected.

4. YOU’RE SHAKING LIKE A LEAF AND FEEL LIGHTHEADED.

Tremors and dizziness are both signs that you should pay closer attention to your body, which is screaming, "Feed me!" Once again, low blood sugar is often the culprit of trembling hands and feeling faint, and exhaustion and stress make the symptoms worse.

5. YOUR COWORKERS SEEM ESPECIALLY ANNOYING.

A woman looking frustrated at work
iStock

You’re tense and irritable, and it’s starting to show. Hunger causes your body to release cortisol and adrenaline, the same hormones responsible for stress. This can put you on edge and lower your tolerance for other people’s quirks and irksome habits, which suddenly seem a lot less bearable.

6. YOU SNAPPED AT YOUR FRIEND OR PARTNER FOR NO GOOD REASON.

A couple arguing in their kitchen
iStock

Not only are you irritable, but you’re more likely to lash out at others because of it. The doses of adrenaline and cortisol in your body can induce a fight-or-flight response and make you go on the attack over matters that—if you had some food in you—would seem unimportant.

So what should you do if these descriptions sound all too familiar? Eat a snack, pronto—one with complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats. The first one brings up your blood sugar level, and the other two slow down how fast the carbohydrates are absorbed, helping you to avoid a sugar crash and maintain a normal blood sugar level. Eating small meals every few hours also helps to keep hanger at bay.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
Alexa Can Now Help You Find a Wine Pairing
iStock
iStock

Even if you enjoy wine regularly, you may not know exactly how you’re supposed to pair it with food. But you don’t have to be a sommelier to put together a good pairing at home. According to Lifehacker, you can just ask Alexa.

An Alexa skill called Wine Finder is designed to help you figure out which wine varietal would go best with whatever food you’re planning to eat. You just have to ask, “What wine goes well with … ”

Created by an app developer called Bloop Entertainment, the Amazon Echo skill features a database with 500 wine pairings. And not all of them are designed for someone working their way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The skill will also help you find the proper pairing for your more casual snacks. In one demo, the skill recommends pairing nachos with a Sauvignon blanc or Zinfandel. (Note that the latter also goes well with Frito pie.)

You can also ask it to find you the perfect wine to drink with apple pie and pizza, in addition to the meats, cheeses, and other wine-pairing staples you might expect. However, if you ask it what to pair with hot dogs, it says “water,” which is an affront to hot dog connoisseurs everywhere.

There are a few other wine-pairing skills available for Alexa, including Wine Pairings, Wine Pairings (two different skills), and Wine Expert. But according to user reviews, Wine Finder is the standout, offering more and higher-quality suggestions than some of the other sommelier apps.

It’s free to enable here, so drink up.

[h/t Lifehacker]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios