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What’s on Your Tray?

The Evolution Of School Lunches
Published: 10/20/2016

National School Lunch Week was October 10 – 14. To celebrate, NEA Today provides a look at 60 years of food service. Whether your memories include pudding and tater tots or holding your first spork (the eating utensil that’s shaped like a spoon, but includes small tines like a fork), the cafeteria is more than just a gathering space. It is also a place where education support professionals help to incorporate healthy food options and where the debate around child nutrition has taken shape.

For nearly 100 years, school lunches have changed to reflect the needs of the country, and today, a concerted effort is being made by Education Support Professionals to serve students healthier options. Take a glimpse at school lunches that are being served across the country.

Late 19th Century

  • The idea that schools would provide anything other than an education to their students is nonexistent.

The 1920s

  • More attention is paid to the science of nutrition and home economics as concern over malnourished students begins to grow.
  • A volunteer program that provides students with a lunchtime meal, if needed, begins to take shape. 

The Great Depression

  • More students begin to rely on school as a source for meals. Many schools find the program difficult to maintain.
  • To help, the U.S. Department of Agriculture pays farmers for their surplus goods, which is offered to schools in need. The system overlooks a nutritional downside: School cafeterias have become a dumping depot for farmer’ unused items. 

World War II 

  • As the nation prepares to buckle down for another physically demanding war, student nutrition becomes a priority. The reason? During World        War I, malnutrition was the most common reason for the rejection of prospective U.S. recruits. 
  • President Franklin D. Roosevelt hires Margaret Mead, an anthropologist, who creates the nutritional guidelines schools would follow for more than two decades. These guidelines include suggested calorie intake based on gender, and the presence on every lunch tray of items that were then considered the components of a balanced meal: meat, beans, green and yellow vegetables, citrus fruits, milk, bread, and butter. 

The 1950s

  • The efforts of several independent volunteers are now a $415 million lunch industry. 
  • Nutritionists’ role in the food process begins to diminish. Fast food items heavy in oil and salt content replace Mead’s suggested greens and fruits. 

The 1970s

  • More changes to the federal guidelines allowed vending and food-service companies to participate in the National School Lunch Program, bringing chips, sodas, and candy into cafeterias.

The 1980s 

  • The USDA continues to loosen their reigns on the nutritional guidelines, registering ketchup packets as a daily source of vegetables.

The 1990s 

  • The federal government begins to allow fast food restaurants to sell their products in school cafeterias. 
  • Simultaneously, nutritionists begin to warn of health implications. This time, their concern is obesity, not malnutrition. 

2010: A Turning Point

  • Well-known personalities, like first lady Michelle Obama, and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, raise public awareness about childhood nutrition. These efforts lead to a much-needed school lunch makeover. 
  • President Barack Obama signs into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, forcing the USDA to reevaluate the school meal nutrition standards for the first time in 15 years. 
  • School cafeterias now include salad bars. Trays are filled with whole grains, low-fat milk, lean proteins, and a selection of fruits and vegetables. 
  • Caps on sodium, calories, and unhealthy fats now ensure students fill their bodies with the best sources of energy.

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National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.