We have all suffered from them, maybe liked some, and certainly discarded plenty. The bane and blessing of every childhood are those school meals that generally get little public attention. However, for over 30 million schoolchildren, many of whom may be getting 50 percent of their daily calories from school meals, and 14 million of them who are already obese, school meals are a critical component of their daily lives.

Coupling education with nutrition is a principle that this democracy has held since 1904, but its first practical application occurred at the end of the 19th century, when Philadelphia and Boston were the first cities to implement school-lunch programs. These were spearheaded by welfare organizations and they not only provided nutritious foods, they also taught children healthy eating habits.

Expansion During the Great Depression

School lunches expanded to more schools and municipalities across the country, but the government only became involved in the school-lunch programs during the Great Depression. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, school districts purchased surplus crops from farmers and employed women to cook and serve that food to hungry students. By 1941, federally supported school-meals programs were offered in all states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Because the school-lunch program was not a permanent mandate, when food supplies diminished and labor became scarce during World War II, the number of school meals served declined until, in 1946, the National School Lunch Act was signed by President Harry Truman.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally assisted meal program that provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. In fiscal year (FY) 2018, it operated in nearly 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools (grades PK–12) and residential child care institutions. The NSLP provided low-cost or free lunches to 29.7 million children daily at a cost of $13.8 billion. Average participation peaked at 31.8 million children and has declined in six of the last seven years.

Each state is also required to provide a certain matching amount, based on a rate first set in the 1980s. Many states provide additional reimbursement on top of the matching requirement.

Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon both increased the budgets for school-lunch programs, while the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 added more subsidies for low-income children, as well as school milk and school breakfast programs (SBP). The SBP began as a pilot program and became permanent in 1975. It was developed specifically to help impoverished children, attending schools located in poor areas or in areas where children had to travel a great distance to school. In fiscal year 2011, more than 12.1 million children participated each day, 10.1 million of whom received free or reduced-price breakfasts.

In 1981, in an attempt to curtail government waste, the Reagan Administration slashed federal school lunch spending by $1.5 billion and attempted to make up for the reduced budget by shrinking lunch portions, reducing the number of children eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and famously declared that ketchup was a vegetable in order to meet nutrition standards. With less federal support, school lunches in the 1980s and 1990s became increasingly privatized and nutrition standards often took a back seat to the bottom line. This same period saw childhood obesity rates in the United States skyrocket.

Michelle Obama’s Initiative

In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which allowed the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to implement new nutrition standards. Boosted by the enthusiasm of First Lady Michelle Obama, the USDA also encouraged school districts to use locally produced foods in school meals and to use “farm-to-school” activities to spark students’ interest in trying new foods. More than 4 in 10 US school districts reported participating in farm-to-school activities, which include serving local foods in the 2013–2014 or 2014–2015 school years.

The rules implemented during the Obama years have improved the nutritional quality of school meals and schools with the healthiest meals had the highest rates of student participation, while the amount of uneaten food, also known as plate waste, remained substantially the same as before these rules were implemented.

Today we are witnessing not only a rollback of healthy school-meal standards, but an attempt to reduce the number of children eligible through changes to the SNAP program.

If a household receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps), all of the children who attend school automatically qualify for free school meals. 

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor and a supporter of chocolate milk, said in statement last year that schools should have more control over the kind of food they serve. In line with Perdue’s aims, the USDA is proposing a reduction in the amount of vegetables and fruit in school lunches and an increase in the amount pizza, burgers, and french fries served.

The USDA has posted these proposed changes and you can add your comments by going to regulations.gov, as you also register your comments with elected officials and your school district.

Lesley Frost, Advocacy Chair

Sources: Time magazine, USDA, school nutrition.org, Wikipedia, heart.org, Mother Jones