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. Everyday, over 34 million children eat federally subsided school meals. Over 20 million children eating school lunch are from low-income families who 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 it start during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Farm prices plummeted and midwestern and western corn and wheat farmers, along with their allies in the Agriculture 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 principals 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, Selective Service Director Lewis B. Hershey warned that as many as one-third of the new Army recruits were underweight and unfit for service.
A national school lunch program appeared 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 Voorhies 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, convinced Congress to bypass education and instead, put the Secretary of Agriculture in charge of school lunches. Child welfare advocates agreed to this compromise rather than see the program scrapped entirely.
The decision to put the National School Lunch Program in the Department of Agriculture had a 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, for the first 15 years of its operation, the National School Lunch Program fed very few poor children. Subsidized meals went mainly to middle-class school districts. When poor children participated in the program, they were often required to stand in separate lines, take 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 receive a free school lunch.
This mandate dramatically transformed the National School Lunch Program. The number of children eating at school increased significantly. But the federal subsidy paid only for food – not for equipment, labor, storage or delivery. 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. Because most schools did not have full kitchens, lunch consisted of pre-packaged and frozen foods.
During the 1980s, the Reagan Administration, in its effort to cut back 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.
Susan Levine is the director of the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her book, "School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America's Favorite Welfare Program," is published by Princeton University Press.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.