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What School Lunch Looked Like Each Decade for the Past Century

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. 


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Our high school in the 70's was still strict. We did have the choice of a salad bar or cafeteria made hamburgers/hot dogs. However, the soft drink machines in the school were turned off during lunch hours so that milk would still be the only drink available.
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Fast food in schools sounds fine to me... They can't screw up any worse than schools did. I remember frozen pepperoni pizzas cooked harder than crackers, egg rolls burnt to a crisp, and horrid low grade hamburger meat between stale buns, and NOTHING ELSE... Not a slice of tomato, lettuce, zip. This for nearly $2, back when fast food dollar menus were respectable, and shortly before McDonalds introduced their $0.29 hamburgers. Oh, and I forgot to mention the lines... I actually had days where I got in line a couple minutes after the bell, and was several spots back when lunch ended. I hated school lunches with a passion, and can't imagine any changes could possibly be bad...
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In junior high I always looked forward to Friday lunches because it was a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup. I loved the soup because they made it with water -not milk- and then boiled the hell out of it so it got this wonderful rich tomato tasting flavor. Yum!
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