The History of School Lunch | The History Kitchen | PBS Food

The History of School Lunch

Mid-Morning Lunch
A hot mid-morning lunch in school. Ashwood Plantations, South Carolina, May 1939.
Source: Library of Congress

School lunch has evolved quite a bit over the last century. Serving a standard lunch to school children started, in both Europe and the United States, with private organizations who were interested in child welfare. It was not a nationwide event, but rather something that took place in individual states and cities over an extended period of time. At the turn of the 20th century, concern over malnutrition in children inspired philanthropic groups to provide balanced meals to students during their lunch hour. At that time, the midday meal was considered the main meal of the day. Most families worked and went to school near the home, so they were afforded the luxury of breaking for a meal at their own dining table. Children either ate at home with their families, or packed a lunch if they attended a school that was too far away. Boarding school students ate formal meals in the dining hall with their fellow classmates.

Philadelphia and Boston were the first major cities to actively attempt to implement a school lunch program in the United States. Philadelphia began by serving penny lunches at one school in 1894. Eventually a lunch committee was added to the Home and School League and the penny lunch program was extended to eight additional schools throughout the city. In Boston, the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union began serving hot lunches to high schools and a centrally located kitchen was used to prepare the meals, which were later transported to the participating schools. In January 1910, Home Economics classes in Boston began an experimental program serving an early lunch to elementary school students three days a week. On the off days, a simple meal of milk and sandwiches was served. Since there wasn’t a lunchroom in the building, students would eat at their desks. Other major cities followed suit in a similar fashion throughout the early part of the 20th century.

School children breaking for lunch at a local café in Floyd County, Kentucky, September 1946. Photographer: Russell Lee. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Schools in rural areas faced a unique problem in that there was rarely space for developing a kitchen and dining area, so serving a warm meal proved to be quite difficult. Some clever teachers began to utilize the stoves that served to heat the classrooms. Soups were placed in large kettles and left to heat on top of the stove. In Wisconsin a program called the “pint jar method” became quite popular. Students would bring pint jars filled with reheatable items like macaroni, cocoa and soup and would place them in buckets of water on top of the stove. By lunchtime, the food would be warm and far more comforting than cold sandwiches. As Parent-Teacher Associations became involved in the school lunch movement, donations in the form of funds, pots and pans and sometimes even small cooking ranges were given. These types of groups were responsible for expanding school lunch programs throughout the 1920s.

Unfortunately, the school lunch program was not growing as rapidly as necessary. Without any sort of legislation that would guarantee the continuing success of school lunch in the years ahead, school boards were reluctant to take on the program. In addition, kitchen equipment was expensive and adding a dining room often meant extensive remodeling. Finally, in 1946, the school lunch program was made official when the 79th congress recognized its importance. President Harry S. Truman signed the National School Lunch Act, authored by Senator Richard B. Russell Jr.:

“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

Childs Restaurant in Philadelphia
Postcard from Childs Restaurant, Philadelphia, PA c. 1908
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The concept of the cafeteria arose as people increasingly found work in factories that took them farther away from home, making it impossible to return for the midday meal. The first eatery to cater to workers in need of a quick and budget-friendly meal was New York’s Exchange Buffet, which opened during the 1880s. The Exchange served only men and offered a self-service style of dining. Later, as a nod to the assembly lines found in cafeterias, brothers William and Samuel Childs opened several lunchrooms under the name Childs Restaurant, in which patrons would line up and push their trays along the counters as they perused the offerings, choosing what they liked. This successful cafeteria model spread across the country at rapid speed, particularly across California, earning it the nickname “Cafeteria Belt.” The standard offerings didn’t differ much from what we might see in cafeterias today– hamburgers, French fries, spaghetti, boiled vegetables, slices of pie and of course, Jell-O. Schools eventually adopted this model of cafeteria-style serving, which was practical for serving large groups of children.

School lunch is something most of us have experienced at some point in our lives. Whether we’ve opted to bring our own brown bag lunch or took a chance on the cafeteria’s fish sticks, school lunch is a rite of passage for most Americans. Low income families often rely on school lunch programs to provide their children with what may be their only balanced meal of their day. The healthfulness of school lunch has been called into question in recent years, and the Obama administration has sought to implement new standards to increase the nutritional value of lunches provided by schools. Years pass and food trends change, but the challenge of nourishing our country’s youth remains.

Research Sources

Bremner, Robert H. Children and Youth in America: A Documentary History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1970. Print.

Gunderson, Gordon W. “National School Lunch Program.” United States Department of Agriculture: Food and Nutrition Services., 17 June 2014. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

Jakle, John A., and Keith A. Sculle. Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. Print.

Smith, Andrew F. The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

Meet the Author

Tori Avey is a food writer, recipe developer, and the creator of She explores the story behind the food – why we eat what we eat, how the foods of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s food can inspire us in the kitchen today. Tori’s food writing and photography have appeared on the websites of CNN, Bon Appetit, Zabar’s, Williams-Sonoma, Yahoo Shine, LA Weekly and The Huffington Post. Follow Tori on Facebook: Tori Avey, Twitter: @toriavey, or Google+.

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