Beyond the Classroom: In search of food in today’s school cafeterias

Trays of fruits, vegetables, grain and protein ready to serve at lunch at the cafeteria of the Coconut Palm Elementary on Tuesday Sept. 1, 2015 in Miramar. This is part of how schools in Miami-Dade and Broward counties are working to give students healthier lunch options.
Trays of fruits, vegetables, grain and protein ready to serve at lunch at the cafeteria of the Coconut Palm Elementary on Tuesday Sept. 1, 2015 in Miramar. This is part of how schools in Miami-Dade and Broward counties are working to give students healthier lunch options. El Nuevo Herald File

When a man’s stomach is full it makes no difference whether he is rich or poor.— Euripides

A 1999 Appetite Journal article (Rozin, P, Fischler C, et al), explained that for humans, food is a critical contributor to physical well being, a major source of both pleasure and worry, a major occupant of waking time and across the world, the single greatest category of expenditures. For a growing child, nourishing food can be an academic deal breaker.

I recall school lunches with no particular disdain. No one liked vegetables, but there was spaghetti with thick tomato/meat sauce and freshly baked chocolate cake. Fresh milk and juice came in a carton, unlike the alien-like plastic pouches of today. But that was a very long time ago – when lunches were 25 to 50 cents (they cost about $2.75 today) and were made from real food, cooked in real kitchens by real people. Part of the allure of food is the way in which it is cooked, seasoned and presented. Yet over the past several years, school lunch programs have become a debacle — from the federal level all the way down to the garbage can where most of it ends up.


In pre-industrial times, the noon meal was considered the main meal of the day — it was called dinner. People generally shared this meal with their families. But based on where you lived, an American child would experience this meal differently. Rural kids would either return home or eat a home-packed lunch; urban kids would be sent home, boarding schools kids would eat in a common dining room, and home-schooled kids would eat at home.

As cities and factories grew in the latter half of the 19th century, the noon meal began to change — people began working farther from home, factories designated specified lunch periods which prohibited time for both travel and mealtime. Cafeterias became the new model of industrial feeding.


The tortuous history of the school lunch program is a pretty interesting read. Gordon W. Gunderson, of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, explains that school food service programs have been multi-state missions spanning a 100+ year evolution. People have worked to develop, test and evaluate, and research food programs to provide nutrition to the nation’s millions of school children.

As diet inadequacies were identified, American schoolchildren and their nutrition became the focus of social scientists, nutrition experts, government researchers, welfare groups, parent/teacher organizations, and women’s’ charity leagues.

Poverty, the 1904 book by Robert Hunter, was a major impetus to the U.S. effort to feed hungry, needy schoolchildren. Hunter believed that making provisions for the physical needs of children was a principle similar to providing children with a certain amount of instruction — especially those from impoverished homes.

According to Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet, author Harvey Levenstein explores the timeline of school lunch programs. The first major lunch program began in 1894, in a few Boston high schools. School lunch programs began with high school students because they could get serve themselves and help clean up afterward.

This pioneering program called The New England Kitchen, was underwritten by a private donor and run as a private enterprise. It was praised for providing nutritionally sound meals at low prices to children who would not normally have them, and became the main justification for similar lunch programs in other cities.

Prior to the 20th century, many city kids returned home from school for a home cooked meal. As the workplace changed, kids were left to themselves with a few pennies to buy food from local pushcarts or deli shops.

Philadelphia: In 1894, one-cent lunches were served in one school with subsequent but limited expansion. In 1908, the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union begun serving hot lunches to high schools. In another school (1910), a mid-morning lunch was prepared by the home economic class three days a week. The children ate their meals at their desks — there was no lunchroom in the building.

Milwaukee: In 1908, lunches were prepared in the homes of women who lived near schools and were willing to cook and serve the meals. Improvement in attendance and scholarship was noted, and additional centers were in operation by 1910. The price of the meal was one cent for children who could pay, and they were served all the soup and rolls they could eat. Those who could not pay received their lunches free.

New York: In 1905, a second publication, The Bitter Cry of the Children by John Spargo, was released following Hunter’s Poverty. The new book explored the effect of malnourishment upon children’s physical and mental well-being and concluded that malnourished children were incapable of successful mental effort, which would ultimately waste national funds allocated for education.

In 1908, a group of citizens founded the New York School Lunch Committee which provided three-cent lunches to impoverished kids.

Instead of pickles and candy, kids were provided hot soup and stew for two cents along with one-cent treats of rice pudding or baked sweet potato. The committee worked through World War I until the responsibility was handed over to the New York Board of Education. The board paid the cost of equipment, gas and lunch rooms, while the sale of lunches covered the cost of food and labor. By the 1919-20 school year, the board was providing lunch for just 35 out of 500 New York schools.

Under these and other numerous fledgling programs —school lunch continued to expand during the 1920s. While the depression years of the 1930s deepened the concern over childhood hunger and malnourishment, the progressive years that followed offered the U.S. government the opportunity to expand the school lunch program using logistical creativity to connect surplus commodities with hungry students.

In 1946, President Harry Truman established the federally assisted National School Lunch Program under the National School Lunch Act. The program provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. The tenets of the “Type A meal” (as it was referred to) include that:

▪ the nutritive content meet at least a third of the child’s nutritional requirements for the day.

▪ the price of the meal is within the ability of most of the children to pay.

▪ children who are unable to pay must be provided a lunch free of charge or at a reduced price.

▪ the menu pattern allow local schools flexibility to plan meals.

▪ local food habits/patterns be observed while introducing new foods to broaden the selection range and help insure an adequate and balanced diet.

▪ it will help develop long term, healthy food habits.

▪ the lunchroom will serve as a laboratory for actual experience in the principles of nutritional science.

During the 1950s, school boards and administrators struggled with the very real problem of feeding huge numbers of hungry boomer children. School officials began seeking more efficient and cheaper ways to feed students. Due to the lack of kitchens in many schools, the concept that a good lunch was more important than a hot lunch spurred the idea of a nutritious cold meal called the Oslo breakfast. This lunch included hard boiled eggs, milk, cheese, fruit and peanut butter.

In the 1960s, American schoolchildren’s food preferences began to broaden. New favorites became pizza, lasagna, chili and enchiladas. Sample recipes used USDA commodities to maintain the simple and economical Type A lunch (protein rich, vegetables, and milk). Lunch was free for those unable to pay and 25 to 40 cents for those who could.

The 1970s marked the nearly 25 years that school lunch programs had been in existence. Although lunch programs continued to grow, the meals reached less than half of American students, and even less impoverished students. In addition, investigations showed that meals fell short in meeting minimal nutritional content (especially iron and vitamins) and were higher in fat than recommended. Data also showed that kids were leaving a significant portion of their lunch uneaten, which was blamed on the unappealing nature of the mass-produced foods.

The 1980s brought the first wave of legislative disaster when the federal government — in its attempt to cut cost — determined that ketchup and pickle relish would be considered vegetables and peanut butter and tofu could substitute for meat. In addition to a price increase for these new food standards, the portions were also cut. One meal might contain three-quarters of an egg on one slice of bread, some carrot sticks, an apple wedge and a partial glass of milk.


As most of us envision a lunch tray full of steaming fresh food right off the stove, many of the current foods are classified as “engineered foods.” Engineered foods are defined by the USDA as processed foods that improve nutrition, reduce cost, offer greater convenience in meal preparation and improve stability.

The pink meat slime catastrophe brought into question what was in the meat being served? Disposable trays, plates, cups, bowls, and utensils eliminated dish washing and enhanced sanitation but created an inordinate amount of waste.


In 2012, the nutrition standards for the National School Lunch/Breakfast Program were updated and signed into law by President Barack Obama. The bill, called the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, reauthorized numerous child nutrition programs through September 2015 and included $4.5 billion in new funding for these programs over 10 years.

The bill required students to choose either a serving of fruit or vegetables with each meal and mandated larger portions. Food products and ingredients used to prepare school meals had to contain 0 grams of added trans-fat per serving and the meal could not provide more than 30% of calories from fat (and less than 10% from saturated fat).

The bill also changed the price of lunch. School districts were reimbursed by the federal government for lunches — 20 cents for each paid lunch and between $2.35 and $2.75 for free/reduced-price lunches. Before the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, almost 15 years had passed without a significant change to school lunches and/or their prices.

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.