The history of school lunches is rather fascinating, but it's also rather extensive, and therefore rather tiresome. Instead of working through all of it, I'll provide some highlights that intertwined with my own life.
My father, who by the way was born in 1939--so not nearly old enough to have lived in The Little House on the Prairie or anything like that, went home for lunch during school. It saved his school the cost of infrastructure that would be needed to feed hundreds of picky eaters every day, and most importantly saved everyone from the indignity of lunch duty. However, it was based on the assumption that most, if not all, kids would have a parent--let's face it, a mom--home to greet and feed the children, and more importantly to get them back to school for the afternoon.
My own elementary school achieved some of the same savings by requiring packed lunches every day. Except Thursday. On Thursday we had "Hot Lunch" which was probably pretty standard school lunch fare for the time--burgers, bar-b-que or meatball sandwiches, pizza, and such. All I remember, though, were the creme-filled doughnuts and the bags of sour cream and onion potato chips. Hot lunch was a lovely treat, but was probably based on a theory that some older people still hold, which is that all a meal requires to be legitimate and nutritious is that it should have heat applied to it.
In high school, things became more normal. Normal for Catholic school, anyway. It was possible to eat a "salad" made up primarily of pepperoni slices, creamy dressing, and croutons. You could also buy a Tastykake pie, an ice cream sandwich, and an IcyTea for about the same price as a school lunch. Or you could buy an official school lunch of pizza, fries, and chocolate milk which cost about the same because the government considered it Lunch, and not just lunch. It still galls kids to get to the checkout and find out that their meal will cost double because they didn't take (not eat, mind you, but take) the fruit cup in heavy syrup.
Apparently by the time I was in high school, they were trying to offer "Hot Lunch" every day at the elementary as well. I spent exactly one day on the drive-hot-lunch-from-the-high-school-kitchen-to-the-elementary-cafeteria crew. Someone had misinterpreted my lackluster grades and Slacker ways for an indication that I was the kind of person who may want to work for a living. Before day two I discovered going to the band room to play my trumpet during study halls, rather than carry steamer trays up and down the steps and in and out of the van. I don't know how the guys who stuck with this horrible task turned out, but I for one still spend my free time playing my trumpet in the band room.
One thing I do remember about our high school cafeteria, was that the frosting on the cake (real butter-cream, by the way) was no less than 1/2 the thickness of the cake itself. Also, if the little squares of pizza got dried out by the second day, they would throw a slice of cheese on top "revive" it. Grilled cheese sandwiches were so ubiquitous that they would cut up the leftovers for croutons.
This was due, it turns out, to the way we used to support farmers. In those days (and still, to a lesser degree) the government bought up excess commodities to support prices. It is still corporate welfare (since the main beneficiary is Big Ag), but keeping the country in the business of growing food, and doing so by giving nutritious natural products to poor people and schools, probably isn't the worst economic policy. To see that, keep reading (see also: T.A.R.P.).
Though subsidized cheese is still apparently on the menus in schools these days, it doesn't have a tenth the ubiquitous quality that it did in the 80s, in part due to the George Bush Thinks I'm Fat Act, as well as the subsequent Michelle Obama Does Too program. These efforts were intended to reduce the butter and cheese in the diets of school persons, based on the fact that high-fat diets were making us just a little bit obese. This may have been true, but it created a bit of a gap, and into the gap came Corn.
It begins, as so many stories in this country do, with the Iowa Caucuses. The strange rituals we use to select our president begin with the first-in-the-nation contest in Iowa, and end in the equally strange Electoral College. As a result, Iowans' interests hold out-sized power in our country. It turns out that much of what Iowans are interested in is Corn.
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read The Omnivore's Dilemma you may want to walk away from the blog and read it, since the next bit is mostly plagiarized from there. I'll wait.
For me, it actually started here in a New York Times Magazine article (it actually started on Fresh Air, since much of my reading is done on the radio). The gist, if you'd rather not read the 9000 word piece, or the 90,000 word book, is that we've really screwed up cows. Cows were designed, perhaps intelligently designed if that's your thing, to extract nutrients from a sustainable, solar-powered food source that grows on almost any terrain, in poor thin soils, with minimal input from us. Meanwhile, they return nutrients to the ground, improving the soil even as they take what they need from it. We weren't satisfied with how quickly this happened, and so started to "finish" them on Corn. Long story short, you'd also get a pretty nice "finish" on you if we fed you Snicker's bars for 14 months, though it wouldn't be good for you in the long run. For beef cattle, there is no long run, so what's the big deal?
The big deal is that feed lots are bad for cows (requiring lots of antibiotics to keep them from getting sick) and ecosystems (concentrating wastes without a real method of dealing with them), and growing Corn is bad for soil (requiring lots of fertilizer, much of which we make from petroleum). We've created this situation by messing with the market just enough to sustain an unsustainable system. If Corn had to function in the actual economy, without subsidies and with the environmental costs built in, maybe it would recede to a sensible place in our food supply. Instead we look for more things to put Corn into, lest it bury us in its golden river of starch.
When we're not eating Corn in the form of beef, we're eating it in the form of chicken, often in nugget or patty form--specifically, chicken (Corn), breaded (in Corn), held together with binders like maltodextrin (Corn), and even though they're "baked" at school, they were previously fried (in Corn oil) in a factory somewhere. All of this is covered in a lovely sauce sweetened with xanthan gum (Corn) and corn syrup (need I say?).
Some of this Corn probably got to us in part by way of fuel made from Corn. When we're not eating Corn we're putting it in our gas tanks--even if it does consume more fuel to make ethanol than we get in fuel from ethanol.
Not too long after the article in 2002 I discovered an important axiom: The Limited Power of Discourse. For all of the talking we do in our society, and how intelligent and sensible (or explosive and strident) the arguments may be, very few minds are changed these days, and very little happens when they are. Michael Pollan has been making these arguments for a decade and we haven't fixed this. Really, we haven't changed much of anything in that time, as far as I can tell.
The other axiom it brings to mind is The Power of Institutional Laziness. Rather than fixing the butter and cheese problem with lower-fat fresh food made from actual ingredients, school lunch programs found another shortcut in the form of processed foods (Corn). In my school you can buy a lunch of pot pie (kind of a thick chicken noodle soup, for anyone living outside of PA Dutch country) with a roll, a bowl of potato soup, a cookie, and a strawberry milk for a federally sanctioned Lunch (by the way, they will hand you, completely without irony, Margarine (Corn) for your roll--though the saltshakers are still banned). One way you can tell there's no nutritional value in that lunch is that the only color comes from the strawberry milk. If Michael Pollan's arguments (and those of others, such as Jamie Oliver) do start to penetrate, look for some other shortcut to soon follow. Serving real food that kids (and grownups, for that matter) will actually eat is hard, which is why they'll probably find solution that doesn't actually fix any of this.
Until then, we will continue to complain about the cafeteria (and gym class). If nothing else, the effort burns some of the calories from all of that hydrolyzed vegetable protein (Corn) they're feeding us now.