For millions of U.S. students, a hot meal has been part of the school day since Congress passed the National School Lunch Program in 1946. But with many items on today's menus crammed with fat and calories, educators are taking a cue from the local-food movement to put school lunches on a healthier path.
The National School Lunch Program, intended to prevent the return of Depression-era child malnourishment, allowed the government to buy surplus food from farmers and set minimum nutritional values for each meal. Its budget grew under Eisenhower and Nixon, but the Reagan Administration slashed it by nearly $1.5 billion--making up for the cuts by revising nutritional guidelines, reducing portion sizes and (infamously) attempting to categorize ketchup as a vegetable.
The 1980s and '90s saw school districts contract with private companies to stock brand-name soft drinks and snacks in exchange for a cut of the profits. While the partnerships boosted school revenue, they also exacerbated soaring childhood-obesity rates.
In an effort to promote healthier diets, some 9,000 schools have joined a national farm-to-school program that provides locally grown food to school cafeterias. The Department of Agriculture is expected to expand school nutrition standards this year, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 63% of schools have stopped selling sugary soft drinks. Yet despite these efforts, most students still pile unhealthy foods onto their lunch trays. Currently, 80% of schools serve lunches with more than the recommended amount of saturated fat; 42% don't offer daily fresh fruits and vegetables. No matter how you measure it, there's very little nutrition in a Tater Tot.