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Hairnets, disposable gloves and all white uniforms have been the defining characteristics of the women working in school cafeterias since the dawn of public lunches. The aroma of recycled meatloaf and sloppy joes, the unchanged proportioned cartons of milk in two flavors and stale buns are what people think of when they think of school lunch.

Not much has changed since 1946 when Herbert Hoover signed the National School Lunch Act (NSLA) into legislation in his effort to “safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other foods.”[1] Hoover implemented the NSLP due to the fact that “…the army reported that many WWII recruits were severely malnourished.”[7] Based on this shocking discovery legislation was enacted and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was formed and charged with the task of ensuring the health and wellbeing of children by navigating the nutritional values of the nation’s school lunch programs.[1]

Prior to the NSLP, children were able to go home for a nutritious homemade meal from scratch. When the role of women was diverted from homemaking to building rivet fighter jets during WWII, the option of handing two or three pennies to their children became commonplace in order to provide them with a square meal until they arrived home to a cooked dinner.[2] However, in 1946 this concept of buying lunch was just at its infancy. A school kitchen had not yet been designed to accommodate the influx of consumption in an educational setting. For the most part, the school kitchen was transplanted from the home to an institutional setting which made it inadequate to serve the new masses in an efficient manner. This ultimately caused efficiency shortcuts in the kitchen like predetermined food options in the vain of frozen fatty fish sticks and processed packaged pizza.

The school cafeteria of the past, during the inception of the NSLP, featured the latest in dining furniture with a choice of stationary round or rectangular wooden tables with matching chairs. This trend in dining decor has remained the staple for the last seven decades. In the kitchen, behind the stainless steel display counters, women in hairnets became known for serving up predetermined processed meals from steaming stainless steel troughs. Not much has changed in the aesthetic of school cafeterias except the patterned tile floors that blanket the bottom of our feet. It appears the school administration and government still believe that this type of design aesthetic is still appropriate for school cafeteria design and they’ve accepted the notion “why fix something that isn’t broken.”


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“Woke up in the morning
Put on my new plastic glove
Served some reheated salisbury steak
with a little slice of love
Got no clue what the chicken pot pie is made of
Just know everything’s doing fine
down here in Lunch Lady Land”
(Lyrics from Lunchlady Land by Adam Sandler)

Highly processed chicken nuggets, pizza and hamburgers were the lunch room staples for most children growing up in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Adam Sandler’s song Lunchlady Land pokes fun at school lunches; however, the sentiment isn’t that far from reality. Even though the NSLP established minimum nutritional standards when it was organized in 1946, it has been struggling to find a balance between offering a nutritious meal that children want to eat and a cost effective national program.[4] Over the years, the government has enacted various laws and done multiple research studies to further define and reshape a program that currently serves 31 million students lunch on a daily basis and 1.2 million breakfasts.[5] “On a typical school day, lunch participants obtain more than one-third (35%) of their daily caloric intake at school: for children participating in both breakfast and lunch, the contribution of school food to caloric intake rises to almost one-half (47%).”[4]

When it comes to making choices about meals, children tend to gravitate towards fatty and sugary options. American adults tend to continue making these poor choices – which has led to a society of people struggling with their weight and ultimately their health.

When were these poor habits learned and reinforced? In 1983 the government relaxed its regulation on the sale “…of foods of minimal nutritional value…”[4]. Some have argued alternative options like vending machines and a al carte choices have reinforced the poor dietary choices children and young adults have made and are continuing to make on a daily basis.[6] It’s no wonder why children in the 80s and 90s chose the fatty a la carte options when their alternatives were what Adam Sandler so vividly described in his song lyrics.

In the last fifteen years the government has taken steps to try to change this trend. Since 2012 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has set new standards to improve the nutritional content of school food by featuring “…whole grains, low-fat milk, more fruit, and a healthier mix of vegetables.”[6] However, changing these guidelines won’t simply change habits. In a research study done by the USDA they have recommended various strategies to minimize plate waste (amount of food uneaten and instead thrown away) which includes: increasing the use of local produce, allowing students to have input into their menu choices, providing additional education regarding nutritional choices and even suggesting that lunchrooms create fruit and vegetable self-service stations to further promote these health options.[3]

In addition to these new guidelines, school kitchens will also need to change. “According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 88 percent of school districts need at least one piece of kitchen equipment, and 55 percent need kitchen infrastructure changes.”[5] An overhaul in both what and how food is served needs to change. The classic image of a lunch lady in a hair net serving sloppy joes has to evolve in order to ensure the health of students today while setting them on a path of making good dietary choices in the future.


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Today cafeteria food is still one of the most despised of all American institutions despite 69 years having gone by since the inception of the NSLP. The stench of fish sticks still lingers in the air of cafeterias across most schools. The iconic hairnetted lunch lady behind her serving trays is the image in most American’s minds of the quintessential school cafeteria. This stereotypical image needs be severed from our mind’s and replaced with one where the lunch lady and students are collaborators; an environment that physically fosters new healthier behaviors and a cafeteria layout that brings food from behind the kitchen and makes it front and center in our mind’s and in our lunchrooms.

Given that an estimated “47%” of calories are consumed at school by children, it is hypercritical that all food and beverages served in schools “make a positive contribution to children’s diets and health” [4][8]. It is especially important for schools to provide a healthy base if so many calories are consumed on school premises. Schools that limit access to “high fat, high sugar foods have been associated with fewer purchases of those items by students”.[8] If schools set strong standards it will help improve children’s diets tremendously. Today “95% of food delivered to school cafeterias is frozen, simply defrosted and served”.[7] Institutional cooking that is mass produced and mass served can be real food. Schools should be a conduit to showing students a better way to eat. Future long-term goals include implementing a paradigm change of cafeteria as curriculum that works alongside with farm to school programs and redesigning the school cafeteria interior to help enable students to make healthier choices.

Shockingly “only 2% of children eat a healthy diet” which means “a diet which is consistent with federal nutrition recommendations”.[9] A systematic paradigm change occurs with education. Educating students and shifting their preconceived notions about food consumption from an emotional passive response to an active engaged response is crucial. Fostering an environment that emphasises habits as a lifestyle which views food as fuel is key. Culinary arts, home economics and health education classes are wonderful opportunities to educate students on healthier eating habits and lifestyles at school in the very environment in which they spend the majority of their time in and consume a significant portion of their calories.

Meals are learning opportunities and classroom education that reinforces healthy eating habits should be complemented by the school cafeteria. Introducing a farm to school approach with food locally sourced whenever possible will provide more nutritious options and enable students to embrace healthier eating. Serving local fruits and vegetables from regional growers and regional farmers from programs like The National Farm to School Network is a step in the right direction. Students are curious about food and programs and workshops at school that offer and incorporate farming, gardens and green roofs will inspire students to get involved with what they are consuming.

Future school cafeterias are a design opportunity to create a dignified space that students are proud of and an environment that has long-term profound affects on eating habits. Smarter design will encourage healthier eating habits. Designing a cafeteria that feels less like a cafeteria is paramount to changing future behavior. Moving away from designing traditional legacy style environments with long galleys that are impersonal and inhospitable and moving towards open and inviting interiors is the future goal. The future cafeteria should feature an open floor plan with island stations throughout along with wide curved counters. Moving the food station to the center of the room and making it the central focal point where the rest of the space spreads concentrically will enable healthier choices. Cafeterias should be designed with vast windows that flood the space with natural light and easy access to fresh air near bucolic green spaces. Access to outdoor seating with non-traditional seating such as picnic tables and banquet seating indoors will help move away from today’s sterile row seating. This is our opportunity to wipe away the stench of fish sticks with fresh locally sourced foods and make the cafeteria environment one of collaborative interaction and lifelong learning.


[1] “The Food Timeline: School Lunch History.” The Food Timeline: School Lunch History. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2015.

[2] Ralston, Katherine, Constance Newman, Annette Clauson, Joanne Guthrie, and Jean Buzby. The National School Lunch Program: Background, Trends, and Issues. ERR-61. U.S. Dept. of Agr., Econ. Res. Serv. July 2008.

[3] Uzby, Jean C., and Joanne F. Guthrie. Plate Waste in School Nutrition Programs. Rep. no. E-FAN-02-009 March 2002. N.p.: Electronic Publications from the Food Assistance & Nutrition Research Program, n.d. Print.

[4] Guthrie, Joanne, Constance Newman, and Katherine Ralston. “USDA School Meal Programs Face New Challenges.” Choices. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2015.

[5] “National School Lunch Reform.” N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2015.

[6] Guthrie, Joanne, and Constance Newman. “Eating Better at School: Can New Policies Improve Children’s Food Choices?” United States Department of Agriculture. USDA ERS, 13 Sep. 2013. Web. 09 May 2015.

[7] Douglas, Leah. “The Future of School Lunch Reform” Serious Eats 2 Mar. 2010. Web. 9 May 2015.

[8] Weber, Jennifer. “Update USDA’s School Nutrition Standards: Cosponsor the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act” National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity (NANA) 9 May 2015.

[9] Wootan, Margo. “Dispensing Junk: How School Vending Undermines Efforts to Feed Children Well” Center for Science in the Public Interest May 2004 1-12. 9 May. 2015.

[10] Wootan, Margo. “Obesity and Other Diet and Inactivity Related Diseases: National Impact, Costs, and Solutions” National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity (NANA) 2005 1-13. 9 May. 2015.