School lunch

A school meal (also known as hot lunch or school dinner) is a meal, typically lunch, provided to students at school by the government. Trends, nutritional values and economics have all played roles in shaping each program. Marketing and a push for healthier meals are two major factors which has been affecting international school meals policies in the past decade.

European Lunches

United Kingdom

In 1944 it was made compulsory for local authorities to provide school dinners, with legal nutritional requirements. Free school meals were available to children with families on very low incomes.[1] As a result, staple traditional "school dinner" foods became embedded in the national psyche from the 1950s onwards. "School puddings" in particular refers to desserts traditionally (historically) served with school dinners, in state and private schools. Examples include tarts such as gypsy tart and Manchester tart and hot puddings such as spotted dick and treacle sponge pudding.[2]

In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government ended entitlement to free meals for thousands of children, and obliged local authorities to open up provision of school meals to competitive tender. This was intended to reduce the cost of local-authority-provided school meals, but caused an enormous drop in the standard of food being fed to children. A 1999 survey by the Medical Research Council suggested that despite rationing, children in 1950 had healthier diets than their counterparts in the 1990s, with more nutrients and lower levels of fat and sugar.[3]

This became a major topic of debate in 2004 when chef Jamie Oliver spearheaded a campaign to improve the quality of school meals. School dinners at state schools during this time had normally been made by outside caterers. The schools sold a lot of deep-fried fast-food like chips, fried turkey nuggets, pizza and pies. After the programme was shown on Channel 4 (Jamie's School Dinners), the public showed support for the increase of funding for school meals, causing the government to create the School Food Trust. The topic became a factor in the 2005 UK general election.


Free school dinners in elementary and secondary schools have been served nationwide since October 9, 1948.[4] In some cities poor people were offered free school dinners from the beginning of the 20th century (e.g., from 1902 in Kuopio, extending to all students in 1945).[5]

In Finland the lunches in higher education (universities, polytechnics etc.) are subsidized. Kela, the social insurance institution of Finland, compensates 1,84 euros per student's daily meal.[6] The meals served are to be as healthy and nutritionally balanced as possible.

Normally, the lunch is prepared like a buffet, where pupils serve themselves as much as they want (mainly potatoes/rice/pasta, meat/fish, soups and vegetables). Bread selection usually consists of white, rye and crisp bread. Milk, buttermilk and water are usually offered as drinks.

Special diets based on religious, cultural or ethnic choices or restrictions due to allergies are served with no extra cost.


School dinner has been free in Swedish elementary and secondary schools since 1973. Normally, the lunch is prepared like a buffet, where pupils serve themselves as much as they want (mainly potatoes/rice, meat/fish and vegetables). Milk and water are usually offered as drinks.


School lunches in Denmark may include items such as fruit, roasted duck, potatoes and red or white cabbage. [7]


Norwegian school lunch was supplied from Sweden during the WW2, partly privately financed. Later all public school lunches were discontinued, so most Norwegians bring sandwiches. In 2007 one free fruit a day was introduced for all pupils in grades 8 - 10. Subsidized milk is sold at schools.


In France, lunch is considered the most important meal of the day. Students can get lunch at school or go home for it. Lunch is one to two hours long. French students are taught to take time to savor and enjoy their meals.[8] Students have to pay for the cafeteria lunch (the cost of the meal differs by region). The price of a meal is based on family income; students pay for half of the meal, while the school pays for the rest. For example, a typical meal may cost $6, with the family paying $3 instead of the full price.[9]

In the 1970s, the French government began to take steps to improve school lunch. The government guidelines for French schools dates back to 1971. The 1971 food recommendation guideline stated that each meal should contain raw vegetables (such as salads and fruits), protein in the form of dairy product or milk, cooked vegetables twice per week, and carbohydrates for the remaining days.[9] The 2001 food recommendation guideline, signed by the minister for national education, stated that the school lunches must be healthy and balanced. The guideline stated that there should be very little fat in the menu and meals must contain vitamins and minerals. Menus are posted for parents; they vary each day. The main course must contain meat, fish or eggs.[8]

The cafeteria serves up five-course meals, even for preschoolers.[10] Schoolkids eat the same thing as adults.[11] A school lunch in France contains an appetizer, salad, main course, cheese plate, and dessert.[10] Bread may accompany each meal. Students eat potato leek soup, carrot and bean salad, lamb with saffron, assortment of cheeses, and grapefruit. Each meal is accompanied with water. French schools do not have vending machines.[12]

Asian Lunches

East Asia


A typical school lunch in the People's Republic of China may include items such as white rice, fish, potato and onion mix, and green beans. [13]

South Korea

School lunches in South Korea include traditional foods like rice and kimchi (fermented cabbage). [14] Other dishes that may be served include sesame leaves stuffed with rice and covered with honey sauce; pumpkin potato soup; a pancake made of egg batter and green onions, with optional peppers and octopus; and a cucumber-and-carrot salad. [15]

In some old schools, the students set and clean the table.


The tradition started in the early 20th century. After World War II, which brought near-famine conditions to Japan, the provision of school lunches was re-introduced in urban areas. School lunch was extended to all elementary schools in Japan in 1952 and, with the enactment of the School Lunch Law, to junior high schools in 1954.

These early lunches initially included items such as bread or bread rolls, skimmed milk powder (later replaced in 1958 by milk bottles and cartons) and later flour donated by an American charity, a dessert, and a dish (such as daikon radish) that changed daily. [16] Other dishes included inexpensive protein such as stewed bean dishes, fried white fish, and, until the 1970s, whale meat. Provisions of rice were introduced in 1976, following a surplus of (government-distributed) Japanese rice, and became increasingly frequent during the 1980s. Hamburg steak, stew and Japanese curry became staples as well.

Today, as of 2004, 99% of elementary school students and 82% of junior high school students eat kyūshoku (school lunch) in Japan.[17] The food is grown locally, is almost never frozen, and, barring dietary restrictions, is the same for every student. [18] Children in most districts cannot bring their own meals to school until they reach high school, nor do schools have vending machines; [19] instead, children are taught to eat what they are served.

However, the daily bento boxes are designed by nutritionists to provide a balanced yet tasty meal for the children, working especially to appeal to picky or unhealthy eaters. [20] "Though Japan’s central government sets basic nutritional guidelines, regulation is surprisingly minimal. Not every meal has to meet precise caloric guidelines......Central government officials say they have ultimate authority to step in if schools are serving unhealthy food, but they can’t think of any examples where that actually happened." [21]

"And because this is food-obsessed Japan, those standard meals are restaurant-worthy; in fact, Adachi Ward publishes a full-color cookbook based on its best school meals." [22] Dishes range from Asian foods such as naengmyeon, tom yam and ma po tofu to Western foods such as spaghetti, stew and clam chowder. However, "Japanese food, contrary to the common perception, isn’t automatically healthy; it includes crispy chicken, rich bowls of salty ramen with pork belly and battered and deep-fried tempura. But, like most cuisines, it can be healthy." [23] For example, "You don’t see low-fat options. You don’t see dessert, other than fruit and yogurt. You occasionally see fried food, but in stark moderation." [24]

In both elementary school and middle school, students put on white coats and caps and serve their classmates, [25] who then all eat together in their classrooms instead of a cafeteria. [26]

To make lunches affordable for students, municipalities pay for the labor costs, but parents, who are billed monthly, pay for the ingredients. [27] These typically cost about 250 to 300 yen or $3 per meal per student, with reduced and free options for poorer families. [28]

Southeast Asia


In most Malaysian schools, students eat in a canteen where they purchase food and drinks from vendors. The choice of cuisine available in school canteens are usually Malay, Chinese, and Indian with varieties of rice, noodles, and breads. The common find in the average Malaysian school canteen are varieties of Nasi Lemak, Nasi Goreng, Chicken Rice, Popiah, and Laksa. The food and drinks in the canteens are sold at reduced prices to students. Underprivileged students can apply for the free-food program which, depending on the school, is either sponsored by the schools' parent-teacher associations or by the education ministry.[29]


School meals in most primary and secondary schools, and junior colleges, are provided in each school's canteen (or tuckshop). The canteens are made up of stalls selling a variety of cuisine as well as beverages. Meals in the school canteens are of a cheaper but smaller compared to similar meals in public food centres in Singapore. To cater to the variety of races, religions and cultures in Singapore, school meals often offer a range of cuisines like Chinese, Indian, Malay and Western food. There is always at least one halal stall in each canteen.

To encourage healthier eating habits among children, the Health Promotion Board of Singapore launched the Healthy Eating in Schools Programme which gives an award to schools which serve healthy school meals. This includes cutting down on the sugar content in drinks and desserts, cutting down on deep-fried and fatty food, and including two servings of greens in the meals.[30]


School meals in the Philippines appear to be relatively simplistic, with mainly rice, meat and gravy. [31]

South Asia


See also Midday Meal Scheme

Under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), government schools and partially aided schools, along with Anganwadis, provide midday meals to the students attending such institutions, known as the Midday Meal Scheme. The meals served are free of cost and meet guidelines that have been set by the policy. The history of the program can be traced to 1925, making it one of the oldest free food programs for school children.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, a public-private partnership in midday meal program, is a school meal program run by an NGO. Akshaya Patra started serving 1,500 children in the year 2000 and today it serves lunch to over 1.2 million school children in 8 states in India everyday.

A single afternoon lunch usually contains a cereal which is locally available, made in a way acceptable to the prevailing local customs. Vegetables cooked as curry or soups and a portion of milk is allotted for each child. The menu is occasionally varied to appeal to students.

Children in private schools usually carry their own lunch boxes. Many schools also have canteens, and street food vendors can often be found in front of the campuses.

West Asia


In the 1960s, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had intended a non-violent regeneration of Iranian society through economic and social reforms called White Revolution, with the ultimate long-term aim of transforming Iran into a global economic and industrial power. The White Revolution consisted of 19 elements that were introduced over a period of 15 years, with the first 6 introduced in 1963 and put to a national referendum on January 26, 1963. In 1975 the Shah started a program for 'Free and Compulsory Education and a daily free meal' for all children from kindergarten to 14 years of age. It provided free milk (1/3 pint) in schools to all children in Iran as well as pistachios, fresh fruit, and biscuits.

North American Lunches


Canada has no national school meal program,[32][33] and elementary schools are usually not equipped with kitchen facilities. Parents are generally expected to provide a packed lunch for their child to take to school,[34] or have their child return home for the duration of the lunch period. However, some non-profit organizations dedicated to student nutrition programs do exist.[35]

United States

Main article: School meal programs in the United States

The National School Lunch Program was created in 1946 when President Truman signed the National School Lunch Act into law. This legislation was originally created in order to aid farms struggling with their surplus provisions, in a way that was also beneficial to society.[36] Truman intended these meals to promote and protect child nutrition, while supporting consumption of American farm products.[37] Today, the National School Lunch Program is a federal nutrition assistance program operating in over 101,000 public and non-profit private schools and residential care institutions. Regulated and administered at the federal level by the Food and Nutrition Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which defines the current program as nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 31 million U.S. children each school day.

There is some controversy over the fact that the USDA is currently not only responsible for promoting health through nutritious school meals and diet guidelines, but also for promoting the consumption of major agricultural products such as dairy and pork.[38] Critics say this is an innate conflict of interest, evident in how deciding the National School Lunch Program standards remains a political process, influenced to a degree by food industry lobbyists. As a result, what currently constitutes "nutrition" in these meals does not include some of the basics needed for a healthy diet, as according to nutrition science. [39]

In its 66-year history, the program has expanded. It now includes the School Breakfast Program, the Snack Program, a Child and Adult Care Feeding Program and the Summer Food Service Program. At the State level, the National School Lunch Program is usually administered by State education agencies, who operate the program through agreements with school food authorities.

Generally, public or nonprofit private schools of high school grade or under and public or nonprofit private residential child care institutions may or may not participate in the school lunch program. School districts and independent schools that choose to take part in the program get cash minimal subsidies and donated commodities from the USDA for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet federal requirements, and they must offer free or reduced price lunches to eligible children. School food authorities can also be reimbursed for snacks served to children through age 18 in after-school education or enrichment programs.

School lunches must meet the applicable recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which state that no more than 30 percent of an individual's calories come from fat and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. Regulations also establish a standard for school lunches to provide one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories. School lunches must meet federal nutrition requirements over the course of one week's worth of lunches served, but decisions about what specific foods to serve and how they are prepared are made by local school food authorities.

Vending machines in schools are also a major source of food for students. Under pressure from parents and anti-obesity advocates, many school districts moved to ban sodas, junk foods, and candy from vending machines and cafeterias.[40] Various laws have also been passed to limit foods sold in school vending machines. With increasing concern over traditional vending machines in schools, healthier vending options have gained popularity and are steadily being adopted by schools around the nation.[41][42] Such "healthy vending machines" are marketed as allowing students to perform better in addition to better health.[43]

See also

Food portal
  • "Flavoring the Nation: School Lunch in Japan." Alexis Agliano Sanborn, March 2013, Harvard University master's thesis.



Further reading

  • Levine, Susan. School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America's Favorite Welfare Program (2010) excerpt and text search

External links

  • Integrated Child Development Services
  • Food For Education
  • Jamie's School Dinners
  • "BBC
  • school meals blog
  • School Lunch
  • Food Stories — Explore a century of revolutionary change in UK food culture on the British Library's Food Stories website
  • Kinsman, Kat. "CNN. November 15, 2011.
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