How did the school lunch program get started?
By Susan Wunderink
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) has embodied some of the highest-profile social policy issues of the day, from unemployment in the 1930s, to hunger in the late 1960s, to obesity in the 2000s.
The roots of the school lunch program are in the turn-of-the century social welfare movement. In the U.S., the concerns were getting hot food to children during the day, nutritional value, and making sure that all schoolchildren got a meal. Humanitarian organizations and Parent-Teacher Associations made sure schools were able to provide low-cost meals.
Those programs were gradually incorporated into the federal government’s social services. After World War II, Congress made the federal government’s role permanent by passing the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act in 1946.
Not only did the program provide a public good—children who were healthy and ready to learn—it also served other purposes for economic recovery. School cafeterias gave jobs to Works Progress Administration workers, and schools became customers for agricultural surpluses, keeping the prices of excess commodities from sinking.
In the 1962 reauthorization, Congress paid special attention to needy students, offering reimbursement to schools that served free or reduced-price lunches.
The program expanded, and so did scrutiny over the nutritional content of the food and the application of free and reduced-price lunches.
That history—as well as the amount of money NSLP spends on food—means that the program sends some mixed messages about whether its primary constituents are corporate food providers, taxpayers, or children.
Who cares about the school lunch program, and why?
Besides schoolchildren and their parents, several other groups pay attention to the National School Lunch Program.
Farmers and food corporations
The USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Services (AMS) purchases a set amount of products from farmers and an additional “bonus” amount of surpluses. In FY2006, for example, AMS purchased $550 million worth of farm products to distribute to schools. When surpluses appeared that year, AMS then purchased $81 billion of surplus products to distribute to schools. The portion Congress gives to AMS is the “Commodity Assistance Entitlement” program. Because this is an entitlement, some farmers depend on the AMS commodity purchases.
All kinds of food producers and food services, from Pepsi Co. (which reported 8 lobbying trips for the last bill) to local organic growers want schools to be allowed to and encouraged to use their foods as USDA-purchased commodities, or as meal components the schools purchase on their own with reimbursement or grant money.
Public health interest groups
The school lunch program is now seen as a way to address an environment of unhealthy nutritional choices for children. Health-related interest groups, such as the American Diabetes Association, also lobbied Senators. Recognizing the role that school food—both meals and vending machine foods—plays in children’s healthy, they are pushing for better nutritional standards and enforcement.
Addressing child obesity was one of the targets of the 2010 reauthorization. The First Lady promoted the bill as a part of her Let’s Move! initiative to end child obesity.