As a Wheaton College student, I am fortunate to have access to one of the top college cafeterias in the country. Hot soup, salad and sandwich bars and a variety of constantly-changing, freshly made meals are some of the many selections offered on a daily basis. This, however, is not the norm. In most primary and secondary schools across the country, canned fruit, tater tots and spongy pizza slices are a better representation of what’s typically on the menu. But while quality might not be at the top of the priority list, the fact that lunch is offered at most schools reflects a standard and a responsibility that schools have to their students. Today, it would be unusual to find a school that does not offer some form of a basic, affordable lunch option to its students.

This tradition of providing food along with an education dates back to the late-1700s when the children of poor workers in Munich, Germany would receive lessons along with a simple meal. In the United States, different programs were experimented with throughout the 1800’s and 1900’s as groups tried to implement systems that would benefit the well-being of the students. Throughout these efforts, a common challenge has been how to address the issue of poverty and how this affects students’ access to adequate nutrition. In 1906, John Spargo in his book, The Bitter Cry of the Children, estimated that “not less than 2,000,000 children of school age in the United States are the victims of poverty which denies them common necessities, particularly adequate nourishment.”

This need has not gone away. Today, the National School Lunch Program attempts to address the problem of paying for lunch by making available “nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches.” By 2012, 66 years after the start of the program, the NSLP had provided over 224 billion lunches to students.

In more recent years, however, the issue of the availability of school lunches has been met, if not surpassed, by another controversy surrounding the nutritional value of these lunches. Ascending trends in health and fitness are evident in the increased popularity of Paleo diets, juice cleanses and workout apps. The rise in health awareness may be closely related to the concerns about the content and nutritional value of school lunches.

Jamie Oliver, a British Chef that appeared on ABC said, “Children are getting diabetes, heart disease, all sorts of diseases that only used to show up in adults, because of the food they’re eating.” He added, “We can influence this in a massive way by improving at least one daily meal, school lunch.” This issue entered into the president’s home several years ago when Michelle Obama took a particular interest in the growing issue of obesity in the United States. She targeted school lunches as a way to combat this problem, saying, “When we send our kids to school, we have a right to expect that they won’t be eating the kid of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we’re trying to keep from them when they’re at home.”

In 2010, the creation of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act changed the requirements that school lunches had to meet in regards to nutrition. Examples of these requirements include limiting the amount of fat, sugar and sodium in food items offered in schools as well as controlling the beverage sizes. But not everyone has welcomed these changes. Some of these conflicting views are political. In an article by the Los Angeles Times, Congresswoman Kristi Noem said, “We should not have what is served for lunch at schools decided by bureaucrats in Washington. This has become a burden.” Others are discontent because they do not like the changes in the food that have resulted from the new regulations.  The same article says that some popular meals including macaroni and cheese and wraps have been taken off of the menu because they would have to be altered in order for them to fit the updated guidelines.

There is also the recurring issue of cost-effectiveness. The balance between providing affordable lunches and nutritional ones is not easy to maintain. In an article, the Huffington Post brings up the fact that finances can be an issue in large-scale food preparation, saying, “school food is a business and directors are expected to generate a profit.” The article also states that “According to the School Nutrition Association, 1.4 million fewer children eat school lunch each day since the nutrition standards have been implemented.” Has the increased focus on health detracted from the value placed on affordability and accessibility of school lunches?

This being said, not all the feedback on the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act has been negative. The National Education Association expressed, “The NEA strongly supports the nutrition guidelines of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. These guidelines have been under attack, and we expect that efforts to roll them back will continue this year.”

As a college student who has had access to school-provided lunches throughout elementary, junior high and high school, I have seen how the regulation of these lunches can be difficult to manage even with guidelines and rules set in place. Even if healthy options are offered, students can often choose which items they actually want to purchase which may consist of no more than a cookie and a soda. And when given the option between a mediocre salad bar and a slice of pizza, many students would probably lean towards the latter. Healthy items also tend to cost more money which could be a reason why students would be less likely to choose these options.

Finding a balance between offering affordable yet nutritious meals is a challenge that will likely not only persist but also grow as demographics, preferences and trends change and adapt. As awareness about gluten-free, vegetarian and other special diets grows, so does the amount of planning that has to go into providing lunch options. It will be interesting to see what direction school lunches take while catering to a dynamic culture with changing tastes.


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