Lunch Programs Essay

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They are now considered a fundamental part of the school day, but school lunch and other meal programs have been offered on a national scale only since 1946. With growing attention to the link between nutrition, health, and learning, they are increasingly becoming a part of the efforts to improve education outcomes for students. This entry describes the gradual development of school lunch programs, their links to helping poor children, and the recent concern with nutrition.

Early Programs

School meal programs have been in existence since the 1790s, when the first programs were started in Europe; the first programs in the United States began in the 1890s. What all of these early programs had in common was the desire to provide poor and malnourished children with at least one significant and healthy (by the standards of the time) meal. One of the earliest programs was started in Munich, Germany, by Benjamin Thompson (also known as Count Rumford), an American. He created the Poor People’s Institute, which provided clothing and food in exchange for work for adults and children. The children were required to work in the morning and afternoon; between work hours, they received lessons. While seeking to provide nutritious meals, the program also sought to operate at the lowest possible cost. Based on the success of this program, Thompson went on to found feeding programs in other European countries.

In the United States, the earliest programs appear to have been started in 1853 in New York City by the Children’s Aid Society. This program specifically served children in vocational education programs. However, it was not until the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth that other school feeding programs began to appear. Among the first cities to have programs were Philadelphia, Boston, and Milwaukee. These early programs often were based on an explicit link between hunger and the inability of children to learn and do the work required of them.

From the beginning of the twentieth century until the Great Depression, programs continued to be created. These programs were all locally run, and some were managed by a charitable group in cooperation with a local board of education. For example, in Cleveland, the program started in 1909 with the Cleveland Federation of Women’s Clubs serving breakfasts to nineteen children at a single school. By 1915, the program had expanded to reach 710 children. In the case of the Cleveland program, the Board of Education provide the space and equipment with the charitable groups providing the food and hiring a woman to prepare and serve the food.

In other cities such as New York, the programs started out being run by charitable groups but were then taken over by the board of education. When the St. Louis Board of Education determined that it was not legal to spend public funds for food, the programs were required to be self-supporting (minus the cost of equipment), a policy that continues to the present. Regardless of how the program was run or funded, though, the prevailing reason for the program was to promote health and improve the readiness to learn.

Although many of the early programs were in urban school systems, some rural school systems also sought to provide a hot lunch for their students. With little to no public money available, teachers had to find alternatives. One strategy included having children bring contributions of meat and vegetables that were then combined and shared by all.

The Depression Years

As programs expanded, states started to pass legislation to authorize local school systems to run lunchrooms. Most states required the programs to cover the cost of food, but some states provided the resources for poor children to be provided with free meals. With the Great Depression, the federal government began to take on a role in these programs. Some of the first aid came through employment support programs. These programs helped to pay the costs of employing women to prepare and serve the food, and as the Depression continued, these programs expanded under the Works Progress Administration.

During the Depression, farm prices were extremely depressed, and there were growing surpluses of agricultural products. At the same time, the high unemployment rates meant that many children could not pay for their meals in schools. The risk of malnutrition for large numbers of children attracted national attention. In 1936, Congress passed legislation that authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase surplus food, removing it from the market, and then donate it in ways that would not interfere with regular commerce. This type of commodity purchase continued until World War II.

With the war, federal aid started to decline, and many programs shut down. However, Congress continued to support the program through legislation in 1943 and 1944 that authorized subsidy payments to local sponsors to pay for food and also set standards for how the federal aid could be spent. As the amounts authorized grew, the program expanded, and by 1946, 6.7 million children were being served each day.

Federal Legislation

In 1946, Congress enacted and President Truman signed the National School Lunch Act. At this time, three meal options were created: Type A, which provided a complete lunch; Type B, which had smaller portions and fewer items; and Type C, which provided a half pint of milk. (Type B was dropped in 1958.) Since then, the program has been continually reauthorized but has changed and expanded.

In 1962, the program changed from a grant to states to a guaranteed meal reimbursement and additional funding for schools that had a high percentage of low-income children. In 1966, the School Breakfast Program was created as a pilot that was then extended in 1968. That year also saw the creation of the Summer Food Program and for the first time provided funding for states to administer all the programs. In 1970, additional amendments created guidelines for providing free or reduced price meals and prohibited discrimination, as well as overt identification of children receiving subsidized meals.

In 1980, changes provided increased flexibility and encouraged school food services to offer a greater variety of foods. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, additional program changes occurred as greater attention was paid to nutrition. In 1996, the program required school lunches to conform to the Dietary Guidelines of 1996. With the 1998 reauthorization, the program included an expanded After School Snack Program with complete reimbursement for schools in the neediest areas. Additionally, the “Meals for Achievement” pilot research program was implemented that year.

By the end of the 1990s and the beginning of this century, greater public attention was being paid to the link between good nutrition and children’s ability to learn. Additionally, national concern was growing about the number of children and adults who are overweight or at-risk overweight. With these twin concerns, the most recent reauthorization in 2004 brought a number of additional changes, including the requirement that local school districts create local wellness policies to address nutrition and physical activity. In 2005, new dietary guidelines were introduced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help stem the tide of overweight. According to the USDA, more than 26 million children receive free or low-cost meals each day. However, many eligible children still do not participate, and many school districts are now expanding their programs as they seek to improve academic achievement.

Bibliography:

  1. Action for Healthy Kids. (2004). The learning connection. Chicago: Author.
  2. Gunderson, G. W. (1971). The national school lunch program: Background and development. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  3. S. Department of Agriculture. (2005). The national school lunch program: Fact sheet. Available from http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Lunch/AboutLunch/NSLPFactSheet.pdf

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