A Brief History of the National School Lunch Program

A Brief History of the National School Lunch Program

There’s more to school lunch than greasy chicken nuggets and tasteless peas. The National School Lunch Program is the only publicly funded nutrition program for school aged children. Every year over three million children eat federally subsided meals in school. Over 85% of the children eating school lunch qualify for free and reduced price meals. Since its start in 1946, the program has been housed and protected by the United States Department of Agriculture. This has been both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

The National School Lunch Program got its start during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Farm prices plummeted and Midwest and Western corn and wheat farmers along with their allies in the Agricultural Department convinced Congress to buy up “surplus” food in order to keep prices up. The problem was, what to do with the food? The USDA’s first solution — destroy the crops and bury the hogs — ended in a public relations disaster. No one wanted to see food destroyed while Americans across the country stood in bread lines and sent their children to school hungry. At the same time, teachers, school principles, and child welfare advocates reported increasing numbers of children showing up in school hungry and malnourished. Indeed, as World War II loomed on the horizon, General Lewis Hershey warned that as many as one-third of the new Army recruits were underweight and unfit for service. 

A national school lunch program appears to solve both of these problems. Gaining support in Congress for a permanent, federally funded program, however, proved tricky. Liberal New Dealers like California Congressman, Jerry Voorhis, thought school lunch belonged under the purview of the Commissioner of Education. School lunch, he believed, should combine children’s welfare with nutrition education. Georgia Senator Richard Russell, an old-style Southern Democrat also supported the idea of feeding poor children in the nation’s schools. But Russell, a staunch segregationist, bitterly fought federal legislation that might challenge Jim Crow, particularly in the schools. Ultimately, Russell, backed by the powerful farm bloc, prevailed. Child welfare advocates agreed to place school lunch under the purview of the Department of Agriculture rather than have the program scrapped entirely.

The decision to put the National School Lunch Program in the Department of Agriculture had significant impact on school menus, the operation of lunchrooms, and on which children received free or reduced price meals. Although the USDA set minimum nutrition standards, the program relied heavily on surplus milk, cheese, beef, corn, and rice. In addition, in the first fifteen years of its operation, the National School Lunch Program fed very few poor children. Subsidized meals went mainly to rural, largely white, school districts. When poor children participated in the program, they were often required to stand in separate lines, taking different trays, and even clean and sweep the lunchroom. There were no national standards for determining who was poor so teachers, principals, and social workers ended up deciding who deserved free lunch and who did not.

During the early 1960s, a coalition of civil rights organizations, anti-hunger campaigners, and women’s groups began to demand a “right to lunch” for poor children. Hungry children, these groups insisted, were a blight on the nation’s conscience. In the Cold War world, the United States promoted democracy and prosperity as the antidote to Communism. The school lunch coalition publicly embarrassed Congress and the Department of Labor by featuring hungry children and exposing the limits of the National School Lunch Program. Ultimately, it was President Nixon who promised to feed the nation’s hungry by Thanksgiving 1970, and who mandated that every poor child in the country received a free school lunch.

The mandate to feed poor children dramatically transformed the National School Lunch Program. The number of children eating at school increased dramatically. But the federal subsidy paid only for food — not for equipment, labor, storage, or delivery. So local school districts had to scramble to find enough money to cover the costs of free meals. They turned to large foodservice corporations to deliver the meals. Since most schools did not have full kitchens, this meant that lunch consisted of pre-packaged and frozen foods. During the 1980s, the Reagan Administration, in its effort to cut federal funding for public programs, tried to restrict the cost of school lunch by declaring ketchup a vegetable. The public outcry was immediate and loud — an indication of just how popular the school lunch program was. Indeed, the National School Lunch Program stands with social security as one of the nation’s most popular public programs.

Calls for reform in the National School Lunch Program focus mainly on the menu. But as the Program’s history reveals, school lunch is about more than the food on the tray and children’s choices in the cafeteria line. It is about the political choices we, as Americans, make about what foods will be subsidized, which children deserve free meals, and, ultimately, who is responsible for our next generation’s health and nutrition. 

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