Originally, school lunch programs were handled by private organizations who were interested in local child welfare, but there was no nationwide program for school lunch. The very first school lunch program was instigated in one school in 1894 Philadelphia where students paid one cent for lunch. The program worked out well, eventually a committee was established, and eight additional schools were added to the penny lunch program.
In Boston, the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union started serving hot lunches to high schools students. A main kitchen was organized to make school lunches which were then transported to the participating schools.
In rural schools some teachers utilized the stoves that heated the classrooms to heat soup for school lunch. Parent-Teacher Associations realized the importance of school lunches and began donating funds, pots and pans and food for schools in their areas.
In 1920 Home Economics classes in Boston began an experiment program of serving lunch to elementary school students three days a week. There were no lunchrooms or cafeterias in the schools, so students simply ate at their desks. Other cities in the nation began following this impromptu school lunch program throughout the early part of the 20th century.
The school lunch programs did not take off as was hoped and there was no government – state or federal – legislation that guaranteed the continuing success of school lunch. School boards were reluctant to take on the program because kitchen equipment was expensive and adding a kitchen area to schools meant extensive remodeling.
Then, in 1946 the school lunch program was made official when President Harry S. Truman signed the National School Lunch Act. The act, written by Senator Richard B. Russell Jr said, “It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the States, through grants-in aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of food and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation and expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs.”
– Sec. 2 The National School Lunch Act, 1946
The cafeteria concept was somewhat foreign, and the first budget-friendly cafeteria meal was served in New York’s Exchange Buffet, which was founded during the 1880s. Next, William and Samuel Childs opened lunchrooms where patrons pushed their trays along counters and chose what they would like to eat. The concept of cafeteria-style restaurants sped to California, where standard offerings were spaghetti, boiled vegetables, hamburgers, French fries, and Jell-O. Schools liked this cafeteria-style concept, and began adopting this model of food service.
School lunch is something students who go to public or even charter schools experience. You bring your brown bag lunch from home or take a chance on the school’s fish sticks, but school lunch is a rite of passage for most Americans students.
Most schools at the time the School Lunch Program was launched did not have full kitchens. The first organized school lunches under the National School Lunch Program turned to large foodservice corporation to prepare and deliver meals. Food delivery meant lunches of pre-packaged and frozen foods.
Frozen and pre-packaged types of food were neither nutritious, tasty, or budget friendly. The Federal government determined that there needed to be a change in federally subsidized public programs and during the 1980s the Reagan Administration tried to cut federal funding for school lunch programs. In their attempt to restrict the cost of school lunch, ketchup was declared a vegetable. The public outcry was loud, and no one wanted a change in school lunch programs.
The school lunch program, along with Social Security, is still one of the most popular government programs available. Since its formal start in 1946 school lunch has been protected by the United States Department of Agriculture, and that department dictates the menus of school lunches.
Reforms and mandates over the years have been enacted to feed low-income children, and these changes have transformed The National School Lunch Program. A federal government subsidy pays only for food, however, not for equipment, storage, labor or delivery. Local school districts must scramble to find enough money to cover the costs of preparing, storing, and distributing free meals
The healthfulness of school lunches has been called into question many times. In the past ten years, the Obama administration sought to implement new standards to increase the nutritional values of school lunches. Regardless, today’s school lunches are still not the best tasting, and they don’t really fulfill the nutritional needs of countless school children.
Reforms in the National School Lunch Program focus on the menu. However, as history reveals, the Program’s school lunch is more than about food on the tray and children’s choices in the cafeteria line. The National School Lunch Program has become a political football that still tries to determine what foods will be subsidized and which children deserve free meals.
American Preparatory Academy follows the mandated school lunch programs, but when questioned about school lunch, students at American Prep had nothing but high praise about what they were fed. “It’s tasty,” stated one West Valley student. Most schools seem to get the idea of school lunch wrong, but there are charter schools who believe that food needs to be nutritional, healthy, and eatable. Food fads will continue to change, but the service of feeding students nutritious school lunch will always remain. American Prep believes in this philosophy and they manage their school lunch programs well.