Were the Good Old Days of School Lunch Really That Good?

Last week, while going through a box of old things my father saved before he died, my younger brother found this old school lunch menu. It's from Valley Stream Union Free District Thirteen in NY (my family spent several years at Howell Road Elementary School in that district), and it's dated 1976. My dad was a pretty sentimental guy, so I'm not terribly surprised that he saved a menu from when we were kids.

I find the menu fascinating, and not just because there are still union free school districts in this country. I've been thinking a lot about what was on the menu back in 1976 in the context of the some of the comments you've posted related to our article "An Open Letter to Our Children: We're Sorry About School Lunch." For example, Ginger wrote:

I continue to be surprised at how many options my kids have for lunch. When I was in school, we had one meal choice until high school, where we had two choices plus an a la carte line.

Now, my kids have lots of options at school. They often choose fruits, veggies and salads. Thankfully, they opt out of the "greasy" meals like hamburgers and pizza.

Jane, writing about her own school lunch, said:

... the food was plentiful (you could go back for seconds without paying an extra dime), the food was wonderful (as good as a family restaurant any day of the week) AND we had an entire hour to eat (by the way, the extra hour didn't hurt our education - at high school graduation, out of 39 students more that 50% went on to a bachelors degree or higher - and that was in 1969)! When my children attended grade school there, it was the same. My sister is now a teacher at that school and they still have cooks and a kitchen and the food is good! Seems that there are two things lacking now - a real kitchen with cooks and education for entire families about what they should be cooking and eating.

Still, I've been living in a little bit of a "back in the good old days, when I was a kid" haze. I remember that lunch was cooked in a kitchen at each of my schools (I went to several), and I remember it being good. But when I spoke with the woman who runs the lunchroom at my son's school, she said that the options have gotten better and better over the years. "I can get all sorts of fruit and vegetables now that I couldn't get even a couple of years ago," she told me, "the challenge is getting the kids to eat them."

So it was a bit of a revelation for me to compare the menu below, from Minneapolis Public Schools, with the one from 1976.

Looking at the menu, a few things immediately struck me:

  • The amount of choice and variety there is in today's menu, including non-fried options like a chicken caesar wrap, Greek chicken salad, and fresh zucchini slices
  • The frequency at which french fries were served in Valley Stream in 1976
  • The number of hot dogs and hamburgers served back in the day

Obviously, the quality of the food itself is part of the equation, and that issue is not addressed here. Because many schools no longer have kitchens, I find it hard to imagine that the quality has improved over time. I also believe food that's been reheated and wrapped in plastic is less likely to taste good than food cooked and served fresh.

Still, the questions remain: is school lunch worse now than it was in 1976? Has it changed at all? Is it possible that school lunch is actually better now than it was then? We'd love to hear what you think.

And if you haven't yet taken the opportunity to eat lunch with your own children and send us a photo, please get going: the grand prize is a year of free organic milk from Organic Valley.

Lee Zukor is the founder of Simple, Good, and Tasty. Email him at