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Out to lunch

Back in the "good old days," children walked to school swinging their lunch in a pail by their sides. Or they walked home for their noon meal.

With the arrival of the school lunch program, those good old days became even better. Now, all children have a healthy, hot lunch available to them every day. But as the years have gone by, school lunches have gone through some major changes.

The history of the school lunch program

The roots of the school lunch program are based in charitable community service. From the mid 1800s to the early 1900s, concerns about malnutrition in children rallied efforts from organizations to provide nutritious, warm meals for school children.

But it wasn't until June 4, 1946 that President Harry S. Truman signed the National School Lunch Act, which authorized the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). The legislation came in response after Truman read a study that reported that many American men had been rejected for World War II military service because of medical conditions caused by childhood malnutrition.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson extended the program by offering breakfast to school children. Johnson believed that children would do better in school if they had a good breakfast. By 1975, breakfast was being offered to all children in public or non-profit private school.

NSLP has been amended numerous times. Public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions may participate in the NSLP.

Shifts and changes

While concern at the start of the lunch program in 1946 was poor nutrition, today, it has shifted to overweight and obese children.

According to Barb Larson, the director of food and nutrition services for Alexandria School District 206, the focus has changed greatly.

"In 1992 when I started, the main concentrations were to use surplus government commodities as much as possible and plan menus," she said. "Districts had very little choice on what commodities we received and very little concentration was given to the nutritional content of the commodity."

To deal with student wellness and obesity concerns, now there are much stricter nutritional requirements involved in school lunch planning.

"We are required to fall within specific nutrient standards for the growth and development of our students," Larson said.

In 1992, Larson said that "one meal fit all," but there has been a dramatic increase in the number of students who require some type of special diet.

Other major challenges include budget and cost issues, adhering to government regulations and restrictions, and increased documentation.

Lunch menus

Going through the lunch line in the 1940s was a little different than it is for students today at Jefferson High School (JHS) and Discovery Middle School (DMS) in Alexandria.

They were given one choice - a hot meal. Today there are several choices given to kids whose palates are a bit choosier.

At DMS, students have six choices - a main entrée, salad of the day, vegetarian salad, fruit yogurt parfait, sandwich and soup/chips menu, peanut butter and jelly sandwich or bagel with cream cheese (offered daily with fruit, soup or chips).

The same choices are available at JHS, but they also have pizza available daily.

At the elementary school level, students are offered a main entrée, second choice entrée, or a lunch box meal (complete cold meal served in a food boat).

Here is a typical menu for JHS and DMS in 2009-2010:

Monday: Home-style meatballs and gravy with mashed potatoes, chicken cordon bleu sandwich with multigrain Sun Chips, or roasted chicken salad.

Tuesday: Chicken fajita with spicy cornbread, toasted two-cheese sandwich on 12-grain bread with Campbell's tomato soup or Oriental chicken salad.

Wednesday: Sloppy joe on heart healthy bun with potato chips, ham and Swiss on honey wheat sub bun with multigrain Sun Chips or taco salad.

Thursday: Golden chicken nuggets with mashed potatoes, roast beef and Swiss cheese on honey wheat sub bun with cheesy potato soup, teriyaki chicken salad.

Friday: Breaded pork patty on heart healthy bun with baked Cheetos, American sub with creamy coleslaw or chef's salad.

In contrast to the near-gourmet choices of 2010, students in 1943 had two choices - bring your own or eat what is put in front of you. A weekly menu from that decade was a bit more simple:

Monday: Peanut butter sandwiches, peas, carrots, applesauce, milk.

Tuesday: Baked beans, bread and butter, stewed prunes, milk.

Wednesday: Macaroni with tomatoes and hamburger, bread and butter, cookie, milk.

Thursday: Cold meat sandwiches, buttered green beans, tapioca pudding, milk.

Friday: Scrambled eggs and bacon, raw carrots, celery, bread and butter, chocolate pudding, milk.

There's even a la carte

In addition to the full meal choices today, students at DMS and JHS are also able to purchase a la carte items from the snack bar, with a wide variety of snacks to choose from.

There are seven available items in the "baked items" category (muffins, rolls, cookies); 26 beverage choices; seven dairy items (yogurt, cheese); six types of bagels and pretzels; 25 available chips and bag snacks (chips, popcorn, crackers, trail mix); 21 sweets and treats (cookies, granola bars, graham crackers, fruit snacks); three kinds of beef jerky; 13 frozen treats (popsicles, frozen yogurt, sherbet); 18 types of cold sandwiches; 14 hot sandwiches; and three kinds of soup.

Lunch prices

Following are the meal prices for school lunches at Alexandria District 206 schools for the 2009-2010 school year.

• Lunch

Elementary (K-6) - $2

Middle school (7-9) - $2.25

High school (10-12) - $2.40

Families that qualify for reduced meal benefits - $.40

Families that qualify for free meal benefits - Free

Adults and visitors (all ages) - $3.40

Milk - $.50

• Breakfast

Elementary - $1.35

Secondary - $1.50

Adults and visitors - $1.85

Milk - $.50

• In 1944, school lunches cost $.10; in 1950-51, they were $.20; in 1965-66 they were $.25 for elementary school and $.30 for high school; in 1969-70 they were $.35 per lunch or $1.40 per week for high school students.