From chicken nuggets to cheeseburgers, meat and poultry products are a prominent component of the lunches served at US schools, a $10 billion a year business. In recent years, some recipes required reformulating in order to meet the nutritional guidelines set forth by the National School Lunch Program. Some meat and poultry processors developed products specifically to meet the program’s criteria, while at the same time address animal welfare concerns of parents. Changes included baking foods instead of frying, offering gluten-free breadings and using lower-fat meat and poultry blends.  

Here’s a historical perspective of how the school lunch has changed in the past hundred years, courtesy of Advancement Courses. 

In the early 1900s, parents and teachers began to notice the link between a child’s level of nutrition and their academic performance. Through legislation and collaboration with food vendors, schools began to build lunch — and eventually breakfast — programs in an attempt to combat hunger and malnutrition. 

1930s: The Great Depression forced schools to take in surplus goods from American farmers whether it was balanced nutrition or not. Common offerings included lima bean and barley soup and the bread-and-butter sandwich. During these years, it was too expensive to include meat and poultry on a regular basis, as the budget per student was 10 cents. 

1960s: With the integration of black and white Americans in most schools, the student population increased dramatically, and the cafeteria became more streamlined. Operators were allowed to spend about 40 cents on each meal. Items such as country-fried steak started becoming regular offerings. 

1980s: This is the infamous decade of ketchup being deemed a vegetable. National nutritional guidelines were changed, allowing schools to use processed food. Chicken nuggets and hot dogs became familiar menu items.

2010 to today: Healthy eating gains cultural momentum. All foods must meet specified nutritional guidelines, which includes a May 2017 interim rule easing the burden of meeting previously set targets for sodium content. 

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