The History and Value of School Lunches

By Kristin McGinty

The Beginning

The National School Lunch Program operates in 100,000 schools and is available to approximately 50 million children. We have all grown up with lunch in school, and perhaps breakfast too.  But it was not always this way. School meal programs have been developing in the United States since the 19th century. As states began implementing compulsory education, and more children began attending school regularly, the idea of providing meals during the day began to evolve.

Traditionally, during the lunch hour, students were given time to go home. The midday meal was, at this time, considered the primary meal of the day and students living close to home often left, while students living too far ate from a brown bag. In fact, boarding schools were the only educational establishments with any formal dining area. Growing concerns about the separation of social classes and poverty caught the attention of philanthropic groups. The late 19th century marked the settlement house movement, women’s initial involvement in political and social reform, and a growing number of welfare organizations.

The Starr Center Association in Philadelphia spearheaded the first successful school meal program in 1884. They served “penny lunches” at one school, and with much success added a lunch committee to the Home and School League to expand the program to eight additional schools. In Boston, the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union utilized a centrally located kitchen to make hot meals daily and deliver them to local high schools. By 1910, Boston’s home economics programs began making and delivering early lunches to the surrounding elementary schools.

While these programs caught on in larger cities, rural communities faced a much different obstacle. Travel to and from school was a much farther distance for most students, however many schools did not have the available space for a formal kitchen or dining room. Initially, teachers began utilizing the stoves used to heat the classrooms to warm soup. Wisconsin began a “pint jar” program where students would bring jars with soup, pasta, hot cocoa, and other reheatable items to warm in large pots of water. The 1920s saw a large increase in the number of school meal programs through the creation of Parent-Teacher Associations. These Associations would raise funds for cooking ranges, pots, pans, dishware, and cutlery, and in some schools, expansions to add dining rooms.

The New Deal to The Child Nutrition Act

By 1930, the Great Depression left millions without income and employment and left farmers unable to find buyers for their crops. To bridge this gap, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal established the Works Progress Administration. In an effort to help farmers and provide employment, the government would buy surplus agricultural products, disperse them to schools across the country, and hire women to cook and serve meals to students. This curbed child hunger and provided steady work for thousands. A part of this national school meal program, FDR brought on social anthropologist Margaret Mead who believed it was our ethical imperative to ensure America’s children are not hungry. She emphasized the importance of well-balanced school meals as opposed to whatever surplus was available.

By the end of World War II, the concern over nutrition skyrocketed within the discussion over war-readiness. This pushed Congress to enact the National School Lunch Act in 1946.

“It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the States, through grants-in aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of food and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation and expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs.”

                                   -The National School Lunch Act, Section 2, 1946

Additionally, the 1954 Special Milk Program assured access to dairy in schools across the country. This program grew the milk reimbursements available and added over 400 million half pints of milk to school lunchrooms.

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the United States’ War on Poverty in his State of the Union address. In effort to combat the 19% poverty rate, many social programs were established aimed at helping the most vulnerable populations. The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 put school meals under the authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It absorbed the Special Milk Program and developed the School Breakfast Program.

Where are we now?

In 1981, the Reagan Administration was the first to shift the priority of school meals from nutrition and access to financial consciousness. After a century of continued expansion, $1.5 billion was cut from school food spending programs. It also raised eligibility standards, reduced portion sizes, and began qualifying foods like ketchup and relish as vegetables.

School districts, struggling to adapt, began opening the doors for contracts from large food service corporations, fast food producers, and soda companies who provided economical alternatives. Public health researchers identified this new phenomenon as a two-tiered school food system. There was now a mix of cheap, generic products and name-brand premium products. Susan Levine writes in, School Lunch Politics: the Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program, “For American agriculture, the significance of the National School Lunch Program by the 1990’s had shifted from surplus commodity outlets to major markets for the food and food service industries.”

In struggling to budget, districts face higher and higher student-meal debt. Non-profits and charitable organizations have become more involved in filling the funding gaps. Today, during a global pandemic an impending food security crisis, school meals and its expansion and access is up for debate again.

Why invest in school meals?

School meals are not only an opportunity to provide crucial nutrition for students but serve as important educational support. In 2002, Project Bread, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard Medical School researched the effects of a daily nutritious meal in school-age children and found that “children who eat a good breakfast every day learn better, behave better, and perform better in class than children who struggle with hunger.” Share our Strength found that nine out of ten teachers say having a healthy breakfast plays a direct role in academic achievement. Their report showed a “17.5% increase in standardized math scores from students who consistently start their day with a healthy meal.”

Access to a nutritious meal does not only bolster math scores. Children with a healthy diet are less likely to be tardy or absent, have fewer behavioral problems in the classroom, recover faster from illnesses and injuries, and have less trouble maintaining focus. Access to at least one well- balanced meal a day also expands children’s flavor palettes, teaches healthy eating behaviors, fights childhood obesity, and reduces food insecurity. Combating child hunger through school meal programs has shown a direct effect on general health and wellbeing, as well as academic success.

In the words of former President Richard Nixon in 1969 on addressing hunger in the United States:

“First of all there is a moral imperative: Our national conscience requires it. We must because we can. We are the world’s richest nation. We are its best educated nation. We have an agricultural abundance that ranks as a miracle of the modern world. This Nation cannot long continue to live with its conscience if millions of its own people are unable to get an adequate diet.”

-Richard Nixon, 37th President of the United States: 1969 ‐ 1974, Remarks at the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health.

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