American School Lunches Have Always Been a Problem

From baked potatoes to Obama's vegetable concoctions, will we ever please picky kids?

Much depends upon the simple school lunch.

Parents, nutritionists, government officials, farm lobbyists, and lunch ladies have debated the ideal menu for over a century, but they’ve yet to find a meal that can stand up to the real test: consumption. Michelle Obama has recently succeeded in forcing schools to serve more fruits and vegetables and banning sugary drinks in school cafeterias, but even that backfired. As any #thanksmichelleobama search shows, those lunches look disgusting.

According to food historian Abigail Carroll, the midday meal has been — and continues to be — cooked up by a host of factors, including poverty, immigration, social politics, inconsistent nutritional guidelines, and the consistently picky adolescent palate.

In the middle of the 19th century, Carroll says, the midday meal — the biggest of the day — was called dinner. Kids would usually go home to eat or, if home was too far, bring leftovers from breakfast: the beginnings of the modern packed lunch. Cold biscuits with cheese, jam, or tomatoes were common. Some meals were less colorful. “Kids brought potatoes,” Carroll says. “They would put them in the stove to cook during the morning.”

Lunch essentially grew out of what was then considered snack food — meals you could eat without heating, preparation, or utensils. “Pie was very much a lunch food. Or bread and cheese,” says Carroll. “That’s what Lunchables is. A glorified version of cheese and crackers.”

In the late 19th century, cookbooks started recommending that parents should pack their kids different school lunches. The 1893 cookbook Science in the Kitchen pointed out the inadequacy of what children were being served:

The conventional school lunch of white bread and butter, sandwiches, pickles, mince or other rich pie, with a variety of cake and cookies, is scarcely better than none at all; since on the one hand there is a deficiency of food material which can be used for the upbuilding of brains, muscles, and nerves; while on the other hand it contains an abidance of material calculated to induce dyspepsia, headache, dullness of intellect, and other morbid conditions.

Many parents didn’t know any better. Some didn’t have the means to do any better. The lowly sandwich was calorie-dense, convenient and, importantly, palatable. “There was a lot of emphasis on sweetness. So, jam sandwiches,” says Carroll. “And making sure they have enough ‘nutrition,’ which didn’t mean vegetables. It meant energy. Calories.”

PB&J, an American classic. 

While kids spent their lunchtime pennies on pushcart meals of pickles and candy, industrialization and factory life gave rise to the time-saving, cost-efficient cafeteria. Schools soon followed suit, with charity-subsidized menus modeled after British school lunch programs, which also tried to pack in as many calories as possible with hot, super-dense meals, like stews, soups, and pies. Vegetables would occasionally show up in stews, but they were rarely served fresh, says Carroll. “I mean, most Americans weren’t very interested in salads anyways.”

Fish and potato pie with peas, a British lunch program staple.

By the Depression era, the government had a hand in menu planning. If the World War I draft taught America anything, it was that kids were underfed and vitamin deficient. Food prices were rising too much for privately funded charities to continue supplying kids with meals, so federal authorities got involved. Besides, says Carroll, the malnourishment crisis presented the perfect opportunity for the government to push their pro-Americanization agenda. “American” cuisine — chicken croquettes, salmon loafs, and scalloped dishes, according to historian Harvey Levenstein — became school lunch staples, exposing immigrant kids to flavors the government hoped they’d eventually accept as mainstream and bring home to their parents. “They were trying to get people to eat healthier,” says Carroll. “And part of getting people to eat ‘healthier’ was getting immigrants to not eat, you know, garlic.”

Chicken croquettes, part of the "Americanization" of school lunches.

Surplus vegetables were canned by the government during World War II and the practice stuck around afterward, with canned goods making their way to school cafeterias in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and in 1946 the National School Lunch Act bound the government to keeping school kids nourished. Recipe books outlining what to do with the preserved vegetables were issued to schools. One booklet describes recipes for “baked bean cheese ‘burgers’” and “baked beans on meat layer.”

Baked beans.

American classics like hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza were standard lunch fare by the 1960s. Not surprisingly, the first wave of obesity concerns wasn’t far behind. “While the standard lunch ‘provides a valuable source of nourishment for some children,’” a 1977 article in the Chicago Tribune noted, “it may lead to obesity in others…the GAO, an auditing arm of Congress, said in [their] report.”

Eat Hoboken

The Reagan-era budget cuts to the school lunch program necessitated a bit of redefining to stay within the existing nutritional guidelines, to the outrage of parents who refused to accept that ketchup and pickle relish counted as vegetables.

Kids had more to choose from in the coming decades — deli counters and salad bars were more widely available in the ‘90s — but the obesity epidemic had already begun to take hold. Meanwhile, the wider availability of conveniently prepackaged meals, like the now-ubiquitous, nutritionless Lunchables, made it easier for parents to “feed’ their kids.

With the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, Michelle Obama’s efforts to address childhood obesity became law, allowing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to mandate nutritional guidelines for all food sold in public high schools.

The low-salt, low-calorie, and vegetable-heavy meals are, admittedly, healthier. But what good is a perfectly nutritionally balanced meal when kids just end up throwing out the parts they don’t like?

Unlike their 19th-century predecessors, most kids these days aren’t desperate for calories. Not desperate enough, at least, to overlook FLOTUS’ unidentifiable vegetable amalgams for hunger’s sake. While calorie intake drove school menus of the past, today’s school lunches need to be nutritious — and appetizing. And that’s the crucial part, the part that America’s school lunch campaigns have never attempted to address: joy.

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