VT School of Education Professor Answers the Question, “What’s for Lunch?”

We are squarely in back to school season, and as we all get settled back in, there’s a question we all must consider: "What’s for lunch?"

Marcus Weaver-Hightower, a professor in the Foundations of Education program, has been studying school lunch for 15 years.

“As to my initial interest, I’ve always been really interested in food.  It was a big thing with my parents, just the love of food and cooking.”  Weaver-Hightower said, “I’ve also always thought about it because I’ve been on and off of diets, trying to get healthier and eat right, which I think forces people to obsess about food all the time.”

The history of school food in America goes back over a century, starting as state and local programs as early as the mid-1800’s, before becoming systematized by the federal government in the 1930’s due to the Great Depression. At that time, the program had multiple purposes, buying up food that would otherwise go to waste, providing jobs for people cooking and serving the food, and ensuring children were fed. 

In the 40’s, the military saw many potential recruits that were unable to serve due to problems related to malnutrition, so school lunch remained a priority, and was later turned into a permanent program.

The program shrank some in the 80’s under Reagan, and then expanded in the late 2000’s under Obama. But one of Weaver-Hightower's most recent areas of study with school lunch is what happened during the pandemic, and how things are changing now.

“It's really an interesting moment in history,” Weaver-Hightower said, “They [the school districts] were able to very quickly pivot the program into a universal free school meals program.”

States are now debating if they want to keep school lunch free for all students. Regardless of the vote, Weaver-Hightower has lots of hope.

“One of the things that I am really impressed with is the people who are doing innovative work to try to expand not only the availability and access to school meals and other forms of nutrition, but also just the kinds of means of delivery and ways of reaching out to kids that doesn't really require them to have to do all sorts of work to [gain access]; they’re also trying to connect food to the curriculum better. So, things like school gardening have become popular because it can be a co-curricular type of activity integrating the growing, care, and cooking of plants with science classrooms or agricultural education classrooms, or even the English classroom.”

Weaver-Hightower has recently published an article titled “The Failed Promise of Free, Universal School Lunch” and a book titled “Unpacking School Lunch” published earlier this year.

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Written by Alexandra Krens