When I ate in the school cafeteria in the 1960s, we ate beans and cornbread at least twice a week. Fish sticks on Fridays, and various mystery meats with mushy canned vegetables the rest of the time. But my husband, who grew up in California, had tacos and pizza at the school cafeteria. School lunches varied widely by both place and era. Back in the beginning, the government had nothing to do with school lunches.
Volunteer organizations became the main source for low-cost and subsidized school lunches. By 1912, more than 40 cities across the U.S. offered programs through groups like the New York School Lunch Committee, which offered 3-cent meals. Kids didn’t get much for their money [PDF]: Pea soup, lentils, or rice and a piece of bread was a common offering. If students had an extra cent, they could spring for an additional side like stewed prunes, rice pudding, or a candied apple. In rural communities, parent-teacher committees pooled their resources. Pinellas County in Florida started a program that served meat-and-potato stew to schoolchildren using ingredients donated by parents. Even with these innovative efforts, there was still massive concern about hunger and malnutrition amongst America’s schoolchildren.
The U.S. school lunch program has changed a lot in the last 100 years, from its private-sector beginnings to the fast food/healthy eating hybrid it is today. Read the history of the American school lunch program, decade by decade, at mental_floss.