Chocolate Milk Banned: The History of School Lunch 1790 – Today

Chocolate milk may get banned from Los Angeles County school districts, and they are not alone. A growing number of school districts have removed — or are considering removing — flavored milk from cafeterias. But is it better for kids to get the recommended amount of milk per day (which is 3 cups) no matter if it’s the flavored kind? Available research seems to suggest that children who drink flavored milk have higher calcium intake and do not have significantly higher BMIs than children who do not drink flavored milk. The problem is that childhood obesity is on the rise, and kids today are drinking more soda than milk. According to the New York Times, “The amount of milk consumed in America overall has fallen to about 20 gallons a year per capita, from 25 gallons in the early 1990s.”

Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” is shining a spotlight on school lunch. Ah, school lunch. For those of us who ate it daily, nothing can really compare. Semi-wet school lunch trays, sticks of government cheese, Styrofoam cartons of canned pears and bizarre “mystery meat.”   For many, the notion of a school lunch goes no further than a simple brown paper bag containing a sandwich, an apple and a carton of milk.  However, if you look at the history of the school lunch, and its reflection of America itself, you would be amazed.

The History of the American School Lunch

Originally when America was founded, the notion of a school lunch was more or less unheard of. Children would only go to school when it was possible for them to take a break from the family farm. Schools didn’t have cafeterias at the time, and oftentimes children would go home to eat their lunch.

The first school lunches actually took off in Europe in the 1790s, begun by a man known as Count Rumford. An American-born physicist and statesman, he spent his early years in New England though fled to Europe during the Revolutionary War as he was seen as a Royalists sympathizer. While in Munich, he established the Poor People’s Institute, involving a program where poor, unemployed adults were required to work for clothing and food by making clothing for the army. The children were also required to work part. During the hours between their work schedules they were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic.

The food served to children and adults consisted mainly of soup made from potatoes, barley and peas. Meat was not included in the diet because of its high cost. Because of a lack of adequate funding for his projects, Count Rumford was constantly seeking to develop meals that would provide the best nutrition at the lowest possible cost.

The school lunch concept didn’t really take off in America until the 1930s when the Great Depression hit. At that point, the school lunch had major purposes: to help offset the malnourished lower-income students as well as buy surplus crops from farmers, donating them to schools and hiring unemployed women to cook school lunches.  Since health concerns weren’t as prevalent at the time, the meals provided to the students were often high in saturated fat, sugar and salt — a precursor of things to come.

When World War II hit, immediately greater promotion went toward school lunches, as the number of draftees for the military were so malnourished. As part of the program, the Department of Agriculture would reimburse schools for each meal served with the requirement that it “contain a serving of protein, bread, two fruits or vegetables, whole milk and a pat of butter or fortified margarine.”  The lunches became more nutritious and filling, and then in the 1960s The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 completely overhauled the school lunch program. The act made standards for free and reduced-price meals, provided federal funding, and allowed large school districts to cook their meals in central kitchens, instead of just setting up in whatever area was available.

Things took an unhealthy change in the 1970s when districts allowed vending machines to set up operations on school grounds and in return would receive funding from the major soda and candy companies.  Children began gradually replacing milk and water for soda.  This was the first step in food manufactures seeing children as legitimate customers.

School lunches took another massive hit in the 1980s when the Regan Administration cut school budgets immensely, forcing schools to switch to cheaper, unhealthy processed foods that could be reheated and often provided no nutritional benefit.   This radical change also caused schools to once again look to outside vendors for budget support.  Many schools began serving brand name pizza in addition to the soft drinks that were already readily available to the student body.

It has not been until recently that many parents and teachers have begun to make an effort to curb child obesity by attacking the source: school lunches.  Many schools have begun pulling vending machines that serve candy and soda, replacing pizza and hamburgers with healthier options, as well as providing health programs to many students who would like to work off some of the weight they gained through bad food choices.

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  • I am in charge of preparing our school lunch menus, ordering the food, production and labor. We operate on a budget which is constantly being decreased by our government, yet it is the government that dictates what we can serve. The new guidelines, i.e. one cup of starch vegetables per week, which includes all potatoes, peas, carrots, etc and All whole grain products, less fat, less sodium etc. is going to backfire. What it is going to accomplish is that none of the kids will eat school lunch which for many is the only healthy meal they get. We have already taken all sweets and soda from our vending machines and they just bring it from home. I really don’t think the childhood obesity problem stems from the school lunch program, but rather what these kids are eating when they get home. No on there to cook in many instances and relying on fast food or prepackaged products. Look to the source not someone to be the scapegoat.

  • I do not think that school lunches are to blame. I remember when I was in grade school and in the lower grades we had gym class every day, then by the time we reached fifth – eight grade gym class was reduced to time times a week. Then again in high school as a freshman we were required to have a full credit, which was a WHOLE year, not a few week block. After my freshman year no exercise program was mandatory, although we had a two level school and was required to go up and down stairs inbetween our classes. Now as for outside of school, as a child I rode my bike everywhere, had to work in the garden, push mow the yard, and numerous other activities. How many kids push mow a yard during the summer compared to playing a video game? As prices continue to rise, so will the obesity and issues with ourselves and our children. No longer is a salad a cheap meal, nor is milk affordable. Want a healthier society? Make the healthy food affordable!

  • My Son is a VERY picky eater, and won’t drink plain milk, no matter what. We eat a very low sugar diet in our house, but I make an exception for chocolate milk, as I know that gives him calcium – same with yogurt. I would much rather him drink a chocolate milk than juice or soda.

  • @mlemenish I see your point and agree with the idea you are proposing HOWEVER, =) I think it is SCHOOL!!!!! What better way, better time, better reason to TEACH kids HOW to CHOOSE proper choices NOT just in aztec’s and Ghettysburg and a+b=c+J(huh). You are absolutely right that it IS the homes and the parents who stop by mcd’s every night on the way home, and “pack” lunches with chips, cookies, single serving packets of whatever candy’s anythings…even cooler’s for the soda to stay cold. It’s a self defeating circle of horribleness and we have been so oblivious to for so long, we need to put on our big girl panties or waist high waders(whichever has a meaning to you.) WE as parents, NEED to take classes on feeding our children, cause no one knows how. This should be mandatory. SCHOOLs, NEED to provide a 1/2 hr class to kids EVERY SINGLE DAY FOR 12 YEARS how to choose food, grow food, eat food, cook food….Kids don’t go to school long enough….they should be there 7-5…..IF they were there would be lots more time for gym and food classes. I know there are government stops with probably everything I have just said and “mlemenish”, I know that your job is so ridiculous. I agree with the less salt, but I understand how you are frustrated and I just hope and pray that other parents aren’t complete imbeciles, and know that this is all about them. STOP HAVING KIDS IF YOU CAN”T TAKE CARE OF THEM. The application should include, what and how will you feed them, FastFoo

  • Saying your child is a picky eater is giving up. You’re the boss, your kids will eat what you give them. They may complain and whine about it but your the adult and you are in control. Saying you would rather have them drink chocolate milk over soda thinking that it’s better is fooling yourself!

    Chocolate milk has 32 grams of sugar per cup (by the way one milk chug is two servings that’s 64 grams of sugar!)

    Coca Cola has 39 grams of sugar (one serving is one 12oz can, so it’s still 39grams if you drink the whole can).

    by the way 64 grams of sugar = 16 teaspoons on sugar.

    Also EVERYTHING has sugar in it now a days (or some sort of sweetener) you need to educate your kids now. obesity and diabetes are rampant. Eat well and play.

  • Well said dare2356. I HATE it when parents act like they are powerless when it comes to their children. Here’s a newsflash — if you don’t buy the unhealthy crap, then your kids can’t eat it at home. If the only drink you buy is plain milk, soon enough, that is what they’ll drink if they are thirsty enough. If you don’t buy chips, no matter how much they scream and cry for them (which is a problem anyway), they can’t eat them simply because they aren’t available.

    Parents, you have the power to be the single greatest influence in your childrens’ lives and diets — especially young children. Give them the healthy food instead of those awful chicken nuggets. You are in control, not them. I am sure, when they get hungry enough they will eat the healthy food and stop crying for flavored milk and pizza rolls.

  • @juliecirving If you only gave him plain milk, then he’d drink it eventually. If not, it isn’t a great tragedy if kids don’t drink milk. There are *much* better and healthier sources of calcium than a glass of milk.

  • @kyatia @juliecirving As I said, we eat a very healthy, low sugar diet, filled with whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and very little meat. We don’t eat chips or processed crap. My kids love green smoothies. I just don’t have a problem with him drinking chocolate milk at lunch. He is, however in the 10th percentile for weight, so I’m not worried about him being overweight. For other kids, yes I can see that it is a problem.

    This being said, I am SO SICK of people being nasty and combative like you, kyatia, because you hide behind the veil of the internet. This is not personal – it’s a discussion.

  • @juliecirving It is certainly not my intention to be nasty or combative. I don’t think my response to you was at all combative. All I said is that a child would drink regular milk if that was all that was available. In my opinion, flavored milk is as bad as junk food; and ask any doctor, there are definitely much better sources for calcium than flavored milks. I only am “behind the veil of the internet” because this is, of course, a website… My opinions are well researched and I back them up regardless of where I am — on the internet, or in person. I am very involved in the healthy food movement, and am particularly interested in improving the diets of children.

  • School lunch provides 1/3 of a child’s daily nutrition. 1/3 and that’s only 5 days per week!!! Kids do NOT get over-weight from eating one meal a day. They become overweight by making poor choices throughout the day and the weekend – no school lunch. They also do not get enough exercise. You can NOT blame poor choices and no exercise on school lunch. In my district we serve 0 trans fat items, whole grains, fresh veggies and fruits and they can choose a salad entree every day. We can serve it, we can not make them eat it. Children pick-up poor eating habits from their parents – not school lunch. STOP BLAMING SCHOOL LUNCH FOR OVERWEIGHT CHILDREN!!!

  • I didn’t see anyone blaming the school lunches.

    Schools ALSO serve breakfast and it too is mostly surgery stuff. @kwanke Your district sounds great with the food choices you offer but this is far from the standard school lunch. Here in California our school budget has been cut to next to nothing, kids are served starch with more starch with sugar on top.

    Yes I agree parents need to step up and educate themselves AND their children BUT most don’t have time and think the schools will educate the kids.

    I don’t blame the schools, I blame the Government (for cutting funds from education, lunch & PE programs) and the parents for not seeing that kids arnt getting what they need from the schools.

    Cutting down on sugar is the first step and removing flavored milk from school is great start.

    Also if your kids want chocolate milk use Ovaltine instead (much less cals and sugar).

  • @JessicaSadler @mlemenish Why should teaching kids about what to eat become a government responsibility? Where is the parental responsibility? I have three kids ages 14,12 and 6, and the older two started learning to cook at age 7. They know what healthy food is. My older kids can both cook a full meal without using anything from a can or box, just using whole foods. They can bake from scratch. My 6-year-old knows that if it comes in a colorful package, it’s fake food (no nutritional value), but if it has to be peeled or is what she calls a “gredient”, it’s probably a good snack. She knows that I’m likely to say no to something that has much sugar in it. She has watched me make yogurt so many times she knows how to do it and what to put in it when it’s done to taste good. If she’s 6 and has already learned this much, why should I ask my government to coerce my neighbors to cough up property tax money for what will be 1,080 hours of instruction in something a parent can teach far more cheaply and quickly at home?

    I highly recommend the Usborne series of cookbooks for kids, because each step is illustrated. I’ve actually seen elderly widowed men buy these in order to learn to cook. Far better a couple of books that cost under $10 each than having to pay for 1,080 hours of classroom instruction.

  • @Tracey @JessicaSadler

    Sadly Tracey, I don’t think 10% of parents in this country are as amazing of a parent as you are. I think that is even guessing high. I wish I could literally give you an award. I don’t know one single person i know, have known, or have ever met that takes pride in what their kids eat, or why and definately not HOW. The best I have seen is NO DON”T JUMP UP ON THE COUNTER!!!!! I WILL GET YOU MORE FRIES, JUST ASK!!!!!

    I think the government should HAVE to pay for a lot of things, but they allow random idiots to birth welfare babies and give them foodstamps to buy donuts and fruitrollups, they can at least pay to TEACH children to buy, grow, prepare and eat just lke you do…..I’m sorry to be so blunt, but I am surely on your team but just a realist based on what I see every day.

  • @Tracey

    ALSO, my parents taught me how to drive a car but I still had to take public school endless classes on drivers education and drive around is some pretend car using state gov’t paid gas with a gov’t pay creepy perverted instructor.

    They also Teach Sex ED for years! , my mom bought me a book and condoms.

    see where I am going here. Food is so much more imprtant than any of that stuff they teach in school, math, incan history, looking at mitosis in a microscope, I don’t use ANY of that stuff that ruled my life and determined where I went to school that didn’t matter anyway, but FOOD…..I feel that learning to GROW your own food is so much more important. Seeing where food meat comes from, HUGELY important even to middle schoolers. Probably just as traumatic as sex at that age. Learning how to grow food, eat it, taste it, count calories, exercise, be healthy for cholesterol, heart health, DIA_FREAKIN_BETES!!!!! Early Death…….I think yes, you rock as a parent teaching your 6 year old these things, BUT AGAIN……You are a giant exception to the rule, so yes mY ANSWER IS YES THE GOV’t SHOULD MAKE the schools TEACH TEACH TEACH. Have a class mandatory EVERY DAY and make the kids GROW the food they eat AT THE SCHOOL!!!! or would the FDA consider that child labor….they could get free food, AND cover PE. HELLO!?!?!?!?!?!

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