Chocolate milk may get banned from Los Angeles County school districts, and they are not alone. A growing number of school districts have removed — or are considering removing — flavored milk from cafeterias. But is it better for kids to get the recommended amount of milk per day (which is 3 cups) no matter if it’s the flavored kind? Available research seems to suggest that children who drink flavored milk have higher calcium intake and do not have significantly higher BMIs than children who do not drink flavored milk. The problem is that childhood obesity is on the rise, and kids today are drinking more soda than milk. According to the New York Times, “The amount of milk consumed in America overall has fallen to about 20 gallons a year per capita, from 25 gallons in the early 1990s.”
Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” is shining a spotlight on school lunch. Ah, school lunch. For those of us who ate it daily, nothing can really compare. Semi-wet school lunch trays, sticks of government cheese, Styrofoam cartons of canned pears and bizarre “mystery meat.” For many, the notion of a school lunch goes no further than a simple brown paper bag containing a sandwich, an apple and a carton of milk. However, if you look at the history of the school lunch, and its reflection of America itself, you would be amazed.
The History of the American School Lunch
Originally when America was founded, the notion of a school lunch was more or less unheard of. Children would only go to school when it was possible for them to take a break from the family farm. Schools didn’t have cafeterias at the time, and oftentimes children would go home to eat their lunch.
The first school lunches actually took off in Europe in the 1790s, begun by a man known as Count Rumford. An American-born physicist and statesman, he spent his early years in New England though fled to Europe during the Revolutionary War as he was seen as a Royalists sympathizer. While in Munich, he established the Poor People’s Institute, involving a program where poor, unemployed adults were required to work for clothing and food by making clothing for the army. The children were also required to work part. During the hours between their work schedules they were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic.
The food served to children and adults consisted mainly of soup made from potatoes, barley and peas. Meat was not included in the diet because of its high cost. Because of a lack of adequate funding for his projects, Count Rumford was constantly seeking to develop meals that would provide the best nutrition at the lowest possible cost.
The school lunch concept didn’t really take off in America until the 1930s when the Great Depression hit. At that point, the school lunch had major purposes: to help offset the malnourished lower-income students as well as buy surplus crops from farmers, donating them to schools and hiring unemployed women to cook school lunches. Since health concerns weren’t as prevalent at the time, the meals provided to the students were often high in saturated fat, sugar and salt — a precursor of things to come.
When World War II hit, immediately greater promotion went toward school lunches, as the number of draftees for the military were so malnourished. As part of the program, the Department of Agriculture would reimburse schools for each meal served with the requirement that it “contain a serving of protein, bread, two fruits or vegetables, whole milk and a pat of butter or fortified margarine.” The lunches became more nutritious and filling, and then in the 1960s The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 completely overhauled the school lunch program. The act made standards for free and reduced-price meals, provided federal funding, and allowed large school districts to cook their meals in central kitchens, instead of just setting up in whatever area was available.
Things took an unhealthy change in the 1970s when districts allowed vending machines to set up operations on school grounds and in return would receive funding from the major soda and candy companies. Children began gradually replacing milk and water for soda. This was the first step in food manufactures seeing children as legitimate customers.
School lunches took another massive hit in the 1980s when the Regan Administration cut school budgets immensely, forcing schools to switch to cheaper, unhealthy processed foods that could be reheated and often provided no nutritional benefit. This radical change also caused schools to once again look to outside vendors for budget support. Many schools began serving brand name pizza in addition to the soft drinks that were already readily available to the student body.
It has not been until recently that many parents and teachers have begun to make an effort to curb child obesity by attacking the source: school lunches. Many schools have begun pulling vending machines that serve candy and soda, replacing pizza and hamburgers with healthier options, as well as providing health programs to many students who would like to work off some of the weight they gained through bad food choices.