Across the United States, school lunch is being transformed, as counties and cities partner with local farms to access fresh vegetables, as well as hire chefs to introduce tastier and more adventurous meals. This is a much-needed correction after decades of processed meals that contained little in the way of nutrition and flavor. But how did we get to trays of spongy pizza and freezer-burned tater tots in the first place? While it seems as if such culinary delights were always part of a child’s day, the school lunch is barely a century old—and there are plenty of countries in the world, like Canada and Norway, where school lunch doesn’t even exist. This episode, we dive into the history of how we got to today’s school-lunch situation, as well as what it tells us about our economic and gender priorities. Listen in now for all that, plus the science on whether school lunch even matters.
In centuries past, few children other than those of wealthy, aristocratic families received a formal education, certainly not one that had them sitting in a classroom for hours on end, from morning through early afternoon. That all started to change around the time of the Industrial Revolution, according to Andrew Ruis, medical historian at the University of Wisconsin and author of a new book, Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States. “You have a large number of people moving into cities, moving into new kinds of employment, working in factories and mills,” Ruis told Gastropod. “That has pretty wide-ranging effects on social structures,” he said—one of which was that many families were no longer working alongside each other on the farm or in the family trade, where they could break for a midday meal together. As children instead began working in dangerous factories, European authors and philosophers reacted by starting to write about childhood as a time of innocence—one that deserved protection. Gradually, authorities in Europe and North America responded: first, by passing child labor laws, and then by mandating compulsory education.