What Difference Does a Healthy School Lunch Make?

Debates about the importance of school-provided lunches have raged across the world for more than a century.

Young students at a cafeteria table eat lunch
Students dig in at Rose Hill Elementary School in Commerce City, Colorado. (Rick Wilking / Reuters)

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.

Children—all children—now had to attend school. Which raises an important question: If kids are spending the majority of their day in school, how should they be fed? This question gets to the heart of the school-lunch debate, one that has raged around the world for more than a century. As Jennifer Geist Rutledge, assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of Feeding the Future: School-Lunch Programs as Global Social Policy, explained to Gastropod, the decisions that countries made about school lunch—decisions that mean Sweden offers school lunch and Norway doesn’t, and the United States feeds its schoolchildren while Canada assumes the family will do so—were a reflection of prevailing attitudes to issues as seemingly unconnected as farming, national identity and security, and the role of women in society. As we discover in the episode, the same underlying attitudes shape school lunch even today.

The groups behind the first school-lunch programs in the United States attempted to measure its effects on students’ academic performance and health, though the resulting data weren’t particularly scientifically rigorous. In past decades, however, scientists have teased out the fact that access to school lunch does indeed improve student achievement. But does the nutritional quality of the lunch matter? Elizabeth Ramirez Ritchie, one of the authors of a recent Brookings Institution study titled “School-Lunch Quality and Academic Performance,” reveals what her research shows about the connection between healthier lunches, test scores, and student health. Meanwhile, as activists, school districts, and nonprofits across the country try to improve school lunch, we talk to food writer Jane Black about what happened in Huntington, West Virginia, once British chef Jamie Oliver and his “Food Revolution” left town, leaving the local food-service director to pick up the pieces. Finally, while our experts agree that school lunch is important for all kids—a consensus reflected in New York City’s recent decision to make school lunch free for all—why is it threatened today?

This article appears courtesy of Gastropod, a podcast co-hosted by Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley that looks at food through the lens of science and history.