History of School Lunches

Australia has a relatively informal history of school lunches.  Research reveals little more than this video of little Shelley’s first day of school in 1972.  Her Mum packed her lunch, gave her ‘play money’ (probably for an icecream or lollies) and instructed her “don’t eat your apple until playtime.”

However, Britain and the USA have had more formal ‘school lunch’ programs since the 1920s.  More than just food, school lunches have influenced the war effort, politics and the economy.  While this article focuses on America’s history of school lunches, there are certainly parallels with the Australian experience.

School Lunches in the 1920s

In the 1920s, Americans began to take interest in food and nutrition as a science.  School children were weighed and measured for signs of malnutrition and home economists lectured on the best types of foods to eat.   Activists argued the ‘right type of food’ would turn migrants into ‘proper Americans’.  School Lunches were mostly brought from home or programs were run by volunteers.

History of School Lunches - 1920s

School Lunches in the 1930s

During the 1930s, America, Britain and the rest of the world entered the Great Depression.   Unemployment was high, businesses went bankrupt and children went to bed hungry.

In 1933, the US Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act.  The fundamentals of the act were:

  • Government would purchase surplus food from farmers to keep them afloat
  • Schools would receive free food to feed hungry children

This Act paved the way to create the formal school lunches program in the USA. School lunches became the main source of sustenance for many children.

But cracks soon appeared in the program.  The government was forced to buy vast quantities of one type of food, so schools had to make ridiculous lunches from one or two items like olives and grapefruit. Providing children with a nutritious and balanced lunch was second priority to helping farmers survive the Depression.

Around the same time, many American states introduced a formal school milk program.  There was a campaign Shirley Temple Likes Milk to encourage children to drink milk.  Some adults developed a life-long aversion to milk from being forced to drink milk left out to curdle in the sun!

History of School Lunches in the 1930s

School Lunches in the 1940s

The USA joined World War II on 7 December 1941.  War meant food was rationed.

However, America maintained that “food and nutrition would be at least as important as metals and munitions”.  But the government had a bigger agenda than caring for the well-being of students.  In World War I, one in three US military recruits was rejected because of malnutrition.  The US Government was concerned young Americans would not be strong enough to fight off the enemy!

Anthropologist, Margaret Mead, was employed by the government to develop food and nutrition guidelines which included balanced meals of meat and beans, green and yellow vegetables, citrus fruits, milk, bread and butter. She also recommended that children should be able to make choices about what they eat. Mead suggested that food should appeal to students from all backgrounds and be fairly ‘innocuous’, a recommendation still followed by some school canteens today!


History of School Lunches in the 1940s

School Lunches in the 1950s

The 1950s saw the introduction of television and the first TV theme lunch box!  By the 1952, the school-lunch industry had grown from the efforts of several independent volunteers to a $415 million business.

History of School Lunches in the 1950s


School Lunches in the 1960s

The 1960s was a period of protest.  Activists took over the school lunch agenda and shifted focus from farmers to kids in need. In 1967, President Johnson signed the Child Nutrition Act, the first federal program that set aside money for free lunches for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. School lunches had transformed from an agricultural subsidy to “one of the nation’s premier poverty programs.”

The 1960s also saw the introduction of fast food into school canteens.  In an unregulated market, large corporations had a field day.  Meanwhile, nutritionists started voicing their concerns about obesity instead of malnutrition.

History of School Lunches in 1960s

School Lunches in the 1970s

From the 1960s to the 1970s, the USDA slowly loosened its nutritional guidelines to the point where one USDA official said

“if a candy bar has only one nut in it, we feel it is above our minimum nutrient standards.”

History School Lunches 1970s

School Lunches in the 1980s

By the 1980s, the USDA was all about cutting costs.  To save money, the USDA changed guidelines to count tomato sauce as a serve of vegetables!   This hit disadvantaged kids who relied on a nutritious lunch at school.


History of School Lunches in the 1980s


School Lunches in the 1990s

By the 1990s, the government paved the way for fast food venues and vending machines to open within school campuses.  Many schools felt partnering with fast food outlets was their only option to fund a school lunch service. Fast food providers were able to amend their menus just enough to meet minimum nutritional standards.


History of School Lunches in 1990s

School Lunches beyond 2000

The new millenium brought a new attitude to school lunches.  Celebrities such as Jamie Oliver campaigned for the return of healthy school lunches in a bid to combat childhood obesity.  Through the influence of his wife, Michelle Obama, President Obama instructed the USDA to update its nutrition standards for the first time in 15 years.

History of School Lunches beyond 2000


Rory’s School Lunches complies with the South Australian government’s Right Bite Policy.   It is a traffic light system designed to help students and parents make the best choices about their school lunch.   For more information, check out our school lunches page or view our menus.


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