When most of us think about school lunches, the first thing that comes to mind is a cold sandwich eaten in a noisy and overcrowded cafeteria. But school lunches have come a long way since their inception over 100 years ago.

In the years since, school lunch has evolved into a more diverse and nutritious affair. Today, students can choose from an array of healthy options, ranging from fruits and vegetables to lean protein and whole-grain breads. As our understanding of nutrition has grown, so too has the quality of school lunches.

In this blog post, we will explore the history of school lunches and take a look at what has changed (and what has stayed the same) over the past century.


School lunch in 1910 was a far cry from what it is today. Volunteer programs were the predominant source of school lunch subsidized school lunches. However, cities were starting to develop programs that would offer 3-cent meals.  These meals were typically simple fare, such as soup, bread, and milk.

In addition, if students had an extra cent they could choose between rice pudding and candied fruit as a side dish.  While not exactly an ideal meal by today's standards, it was a marked improvement over the alternatives of going hungry or eating lunch at home.


School lunches saw some improvement throughout the 20s. This is when schools had more focused efforts to serve hot lunch. Before, most kids enjoyed stews, boiled meats, creamed vegetables, and bread for school lunch. Many were left to their own devices eating nothing but coffee, potato chips, and pickles, and health experts warned that these meals were nutritionally deficient.

Because of this, a growing number of schools started to offer hot lunches. These meals were typically simple and inexpensive, such as soup or grilled cheese sandwiches. However, they were a welcome addition for students who otherwise would have gone hungry.


During the Great Depression, most schools could not afford to provide hot lunches for their students. During this time, the federal government authorized the US Department of Agriculture to buy excess food from farmers for school lunch programs. As a result, schools began serving far more beef, pork, butter, and other products.

For instance, fresh apples, bananas, vegetable soups, and peanut butter sandwiches were handed out by relief organizations in New York City. Regardless of what was on the menu, though, school lunch provided an important source of nutrition for millions of American children during a very difficult time.


Every US state had a federally sponsored lunch program by the early 1940s. However, funding and the number of available workers fell due to World War II, leaving many youngsters without food. In 1946, Congress passed the National School Lunch Act, which expanded the availability of school lunches across the nation.

The program still relied on agricultural surpluses, which included recipes for creamed chipped beef, cornmeal pudding, fruit shortcake, and pork hash.  While these meals were not gourmet, they were nutritious and filling. And for many kids, they were the only hot meal they would eat all day.


Schools had to increase production dramatically because of the rise in the population's birth rate at this time. This is when private companies began getting into the school lunch business as a result.

With the food industry expanding after the war, kids were fed protein-rich dishes like cheese meatloaf, sausage shortcake, and ham. Interesting enough this is when lunchboxes began to feature popular television shows like Gunsmoke and Hopalong Cassidy too.


The 1960s is when everyone's favorite meal was added to the lunch menu, pizza! At the same time, schools began to centralize their cafeteria and the modern-day cafeteria began to take shape.

This is also when, Congress passed the Child Nutrition Act, which expanded the National School Lunch Program and provided free or reduced-price meals to low-income children.


The 1970s is when fast food began to be introduced into the cafeteria. Fast-food chains like McDonald's and Burger King started selling their products in schools.   For instance, chiliburgers, hamburgers, oven-fried chicken, buttered corn, and fruit gelatin were among the lunch options available to students in Houston's school system in 1974.

As federal nutrition standards weakened throughout the decade, the USDA put out guidelines that said school lunches needed to provide a “minimum nutritional value.”


In the 1980s, federal budget cuts reduced the school lunch program by $1 billion, prompting lousy guidelines for school lunch. For instance, the federal lunch program classified ketchup as a vegetable at this time.

This is also when processed food creations took hold of the cafeteria. Items that were on the menu consistently included: chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, rectangular pizza, chocolate pudding, and Jello-O.


During the 90s, the federal government standards allowed McDonald’s, Little Caesar’s, Chick-fil-A, as school lunch vendors. It was beneficial for schools because they received funding, and for big corporations because it was consistent revenue.

At the time, lunches packed at home were also notoriously unhealthy. Common items included Dunkaroos, Gushers, Fruit by The Foot, and Airheads. Kids certainly enjoyed this era of school lunches, however, it was incredibly unhealthy and obesity rates started to skyrocket.


In the 2000s, decision-makers began to take notice of the alarming rise in obesity rates. Many began changing their menus to provide somewhat healthier meals like grilled jerk chicken, barbecued pork sandwiches, and fresh (instead of canned) fruits and vegetables.

Also, natural and organic food companies began to take more of an interest in providing school lunches. This is when companies like Stonyfield Farm and Annie’s entered the kids’ snack market.


In 2010 school lunch programs were overhauled by the federal government when President Barack Obama signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. This piece of legislation set policy for the USDA's core child nutrition programs. And Michelle Obama also made kids’ nutrition and fitness a priority with her Let’s Move campaign.

As a result, healthy eating gained cultural momentum, and school lunches reflected that. Since the school lunch nutrition policy, students have been eating healthier lunches with more nutritional value.

So What's Next?

There is no doubt that school lunches have come a long way in the past 100 years. And while there have been some improvements, there is still much room for improvement.

What is Ordo?

At Ordo, we're on a mission to revolutionize the cafeteria.

We are a K-12 lunch marketplace that partners with local restaurants, chefs, and caterers to deliver delicious and nutritious meals, right to your school. With Ordo, schools don't have to worry about any of the stress that comes alongside managing a school lunch program. And students get incredible lunches from local favorites!