How School Lunches Have Changed Over the Decades

How School Lunches Have Changed Over the Decades

Haywood Magee/Stringer/Picture Post

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How School Lunches Have Changed Over the Decades
Haywood Magee/Stringer/Picture Post
Hiding to eat big bro's lunch?
Hiding to eat big bro's lunch? by Patrick Q (CC BY-NC-ND)

The 1900s

Kids attending school either went home and ate lunch with family, or carried leftovers from home for lunch wrapped in handkerchiefs or metal pails. Some teachers even had kids bring ingredients from home to contribute to a class lunch, carried the same way. Teachers would combine ingredients into a large stew pot on their room's heater and typically make a stew for the kids who stayed at school to eat.

Dining room
Dining room by Boston City Archives (CC BY)

The 1910s

It began to be recognized that school-provided lunch improved kids' mental and physical growth and taught healthy eating habits, and volunteer organizations such as the Women's Educational and Industrial Union in Boston or Starr Center Association in Philadelphia provided it. Meals cost anywhere from a penny to 3 cents — something like a stew, soup, or rice, along with a piece of bread and maybe an apple or stewed prunes. In schools without a volunteer organization, parents would step in. Students that could were still encouraged to bring their own food from home, often soup, stew, or macaroni in a pint jar and set in a pot on the classroom stove to heat, or a cold meal brought in a metal pail or handkerchief.

The 1920s
Fox Photos/Stringer/Hulton Archive

The 1920s

School lunch evolved into bread, stews, boiled meat, and creamed vegetables. Home economics classes began having girls prepare lunches as part of their curriculum — a first glimpse of what would become a school cafeteria and kitchen. Food brought from home, typically wrapped in handkerchiefs, was potato chips, "frankforters," and pickles. 

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The 1930s
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The 1930s

The federal government got involved during the Great Depression to solve the era's farming crisis and school lunch problem, buying farmers' surpluses so schools could turn it into meals. This meant more students with hot lunches, and helped farmers tremendously — but the results were not always balanced. Butter sandwiches, pork, and seasonal items graced plates. Eventually there was more emphasis on healthy, protein-rich lunches, and peanut butter sandwiches, a fruit, and a vegetable soup were common.

Local School Children
Local School Children by Harwich & Dovercourt (CC BY-SA)

The 1940s

Every state had a federally funded school lunch program in place using crop surpluses, but there were problems: Much of the crops rotted en route, or couldn't be properly stored when they arrived. World War II meant less funding, and there were fewer workers to keep programs going. Again many kids went hungry. By 1946 enough was known about kids' needs that the National School Lunch Act passed, mandating that each state be provided with funding to buy, store, and prepare food for lunches. Menus featured such items as chipped beef, boiled vegetables, stewed fruits, and rolled oats. The price to buy a lunch at school was up to 15 cents.

High School Cafeteria 1950
High School Cafeteria 1950 by U.S. Department of Agriculture (None)

The 1950s

Enter the school lunch boom. Schools began setting up full cafeterias, and companies began seeing opportunity, seeking contracts for a slice of the pie. Schools began serving hot lunches in the form of protein-rich dishes such as meatloaf, sausage shortcake, and ham and bean scallop casseroles. Cold lunches were also offered, including sandwiches, cottage cheese, tomato wedges, apple salads, and ice cream for dessert. On the packed lunch side, branded lunchboxes took off and for the first time lunchboxes were themed after shows such as "Hopalong Cassidy" (the first school lunchbox made) and "Gunsmoke." Sandwiches were a popular commodity in packed lunches too.

The 1960s
Source: Ebay

The 1960s

School lunch offerings expanded. Pizza and enchiladas made their way into cafeterias, while peanut butter and jelly, mashed potatoes, meatloaf, and fish sticks with tartar sauce were considered classics. In 1966 the Child Nutrition Act was signed into law, providing even more lunches to low-income children as well as school milk and school breakfasts. Still bringing from home? Kids used had far more branded lunchboxes to choose from — or brown paper bags.

The 1970s
Peter Trulock/Stringer/Hulton Archive

The 1970s

Fast food began to boom. Hamburgers of every kind, fried chicken sandwiches, and french fries all began popping up in cafeterias, and a full meal might cost 81 cents. Outside vending companies began contracting with schools, bringing in candy bars, chips, and other goodies. For kids who brought lunch, it was in metal lunchboxes adorned with "Happy Days," "The Hardy Boys," Superman, or the band Kiss, all with a matching thermos.

Mork for me Strawberry Shortcake for Gayla
Mork for me Strawberry Shortcake for Gayla by Greg Mote (CC BY)

The 1980s

Spending was being cut on school lunches, portions were smaller, fewer kids had access and nutritional values were low — even ketchup was famously deemed a vegetable. Highly processed foods reigned. Burgers, pizza, french fries, and chicken nuggets were cafeteria staples. For those who packed, metal lunchboxes were still the rage, but now with Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake, Smurfs, or Knight Rider. Capri-Suns and Fruit Roll-Ups could be found in those lunchboxes, and late in the decade came the biggest lunch rage to hit the United States: Lunchables.

DUNKAROOS! by :kirsch: (CC BY)

The 1990s

The focus wasn't on health, but to meet the bottom line. Many districts allowed in private companies such as McDonald's and Little Caesars, with schools profiting and students seeing increasing childhood obesity rates. On the packed-lunch side, gone were the days of the metal lunchbox, replaced by the plastic lunchbox or bag. Lunchables were still huge, along with string cheese, Dunkaroos, and Danimals, followed by Go-Gurts.

Aquafina/Pepsi Machines!
Aquafina/Pepsi Machines! by The Wolf Law Library (CC BY-NC-ND)

The 2000s

Fast food such as McDonald's and vending machines full of Pepsi were abundant, with obesity rates to match, but schools began scaling back and offering healthier foods. Grilled chicken, fresh fruit, and vegetables became more common. On the packed-lunch side, Lunchables, Gushers, Snack Pack pudding, sandwiches, and Capri-Suns were all still hanging around.

20120125-OSEC-RBN-0112 by U.S. Department of Agriculture (CC BY)

The 2010s

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 passed in Congress, bringing a focus on healthier options such as turkey hot dogs, fresh broccoli, roasted vegetables, and organic offerings, and costing an average of $2.18 mid-decade. The initiative may have had an impact: By 2020, schoolkids' body mass index were lower on average. The newer lunchboxes are all plastic or vinyl. Schools began to ban vending machines with junk food and play up bottled water. Packed lunches typically consist of Lunchables, sandwiches, fresh fruit, and bagged chips.

Happy high schoolers eating at a buffet style cafeteria


The current decade got off to a crazy start with a world wide pandemic and millions of children taking their classes and lunches at home. Recently, however, some states are making school lunches free for all children to ensure all kids have access to meals and to remove the stigma for kids getting "free lunch."