School Lunches

 “That’s Miss Bernadette. Serving lunch. Making sure us kids get our nutrition”


Lunch is a staple of any school day. It serves as a time to fill hungry stomachs, and also to allow the student to unwind after a long day of classes. It has become a mandatory part of the day world wide to the point that it is illegal for a school not to allot time for lunch. But, why has this midday meal become so important? Has lunch always been put on such a pedestal? Well, the truth is school lunch has mostly evolved over the last 100 years.

Though there were previous attempts to have some form of midday meal for children (like in 1853 when the Children’s Aid Society of New York initiated a program to serve meals to students at vocational schools or in 1894 with penny lunches in Philadelphia) none of these programs really caught on. Luckily, by the 1900s, awareness was spreading about malnutrition and why there needed to be more concern for children in poor families.

People grew more caring for the less fortunate, and a big influence on this shift in public consciousness comes from Robert Hunter and his book Poverty. The manuscript was published in 1904 and addressed the topic of malnourished children not being able to focus when hungry. You see, in the past, midday meals were considered to be the most important meal of the day, and most families worked and went to school near home. Therefore, children would either bring food to school or were actually allowed to leave and go home to eat. But, this did not guarantee that the children had anything to bring to class or meals to go home to.

Nevertheless, with this new concern for the hungry philanthropic groups began to provide balanced meals during lunch by the 20th century.  Major cities also tried to start school lunch programs like Philadelphia, as stated before, and Boston in 1910 when Home Economics classes experimented with serving lunch 3 times a week and simple lunches the other days. Sadly, rural areas faced a problem of not even having enough space for a kitchen or a cafeteria. But, some teachers combated this issue by using the stoves in the classrooms meant to heat the room to cook instead. Still, the lunch programs were not spreading as quickly as they needed to and needed something to give them a bit of a boost. Thus, in 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed the National School Lunch Act into existence which made it a policy for Congress to ensure school lunch for all students.

From there, the modern school lunch became what it is now due to developmental needs. The cafeteria became a thing as more and more people found work in factories that took them farther away from home and unable to go back for their afternoon meal. This eventually spread to schools and the school lunch of today was born.


Want to see what school lunches were like in the last century? Take a look at this video!



Avey, Tori. "The History of School Lunch." PBS. September 03, 2015.

Gunderson, Gordon W. "National School Lunch Program (NSLP)." Food and Nutrition Service. May 23, 2017. Accessed June 26, 2017.