Education Reform Blog: A Brief History of School Lunch

The Education Reform Primer: A blog exploring the history of public school education in America

By Matthew R. Plain

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant number of school children qualified for free or reduced-price lunches under the United States Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program.  Rationale for affording access to meals in schools is to ensure adequate nutrition for our nation’s children.  With about 30 million school children (even prior to the pandemic) relying on either a free or reduced-price lunch for a nutritious meal during the day, school shutdowns in March of 2020 brought this notion to the forefront of our collective consciousness.  To address this, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) made school lunches free for all students beginning in the Spring of 2020, at first with grab-and-go meals for schools that shut down and/or remain closed to in-person learning, and continuing into the 2020-21 school year.

One might suspect that this seemingly effective approach for addressing the health and safety needs of our nation’s schoolchildren has been an available component of the public school education model since its onset.  However, the current version of our school meals program has more recent origins.  The Federal Government initiated its involvement in school meals during the Great Depression.  In the early 1930’s, the government distributed aid to certain towns to help with school meals labor costs. As the Great Depression wreaked financial havoc on the general population, millions lost jobs.  Families lost the ability to pay for school meals, and farms lost consumers with the ability to pay for their products.

To aid both the agricultural sector and the school lunch program, in the mid 1930’s, Congress enabled the Secretary of Agriculture to buy surplus food from farms and dispose of them through various outlets, including school lunch programs.  World War II would impact this trend, as the U.S. Armed Forces’ food requirements significantly impacted farm surpluses, making the same less available for school meals.  In response, Congress passed legislation in the mid 1940’s providing direct cash assistance to school lunch programs.  Additional legislation throughout the 1940s would aid the evolution of the school lunch program until Congress finally passed the “National School Lunch Act” of 1946.   This legislation passed 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.”  Among other things, the Act conditioned the receipt of federal aid on compliance with a detailed set of standards, including nutritional requirements.

Congressional involvement in school meals would not end there.  The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 expanded Congress’ ability to address children’s nutritional needs in school, formalized and extended the special milk program, and set the stage for a pilot breakfast program.  The Reagan’s administration slashed funding to the school lunch program, and the subject would become a political football for decades until Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.  This Act restored the USDA’s ability to overhaul the school meals programs, and reset nutrition standards for meals in schools.

Regardless of one’s beliefs concerning the federal government’s involvement in feeding children, it is difficult, if not impossible, to refute the notion that children are more likely to learn and develop appropriately when they have access to adequate, healthy meals.  As such, this well-intentioned body of law shows that schools are an effective medium for addressing issues of national concern beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic.