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A Brief History of Feeding Kids at School

Once the calendar flips to September and the smoke from the last Labor Day barbecue grill clears, it’s back to school lunch. Some love it, some hate it, and some, like me, find it … complicated. As a kid, I liked the hot lunch even though the cafeteria monitor would often make me stay in from recess if I didn’t eat everything on my tray. As an adult, one of my favorite volunteer gigs is helping serve lunch at my kids’ school, even though I am occasionally reprimanded for putting too much fruit and salad on their trays. It’s frustrating that feeding kids good food is a struggle in so many school districts. I decided that looking back at the history of the lunch program in America might shed some light on where we’ve been and where we might go.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, advocates for children’s welfare took note that poor, hungry children did not do well in school. Kids who were able to bring their lunch often made do with food of dubious quality.  Reformers argued that for students to succeed, their physical needs had to be taken care of first. It was women’s organizations and social clubs that first took up the cause of hot lunch. In 1894, the Starr Center Association of Philadelphia began offering penny lunches at a local high school. The program proved popular and spread to other schools. Members of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union tied on their aprons in Boston, cooking meals in a central kitchen and delivering them to high schools starting in 1908. In 1910 they began including elementary students three times a week. In cities across the United States, charitable organizations started hot lunch programs to feed children, relying on donations of time, money, food and equipment. So successful were the programs that the resources that volunteers could bring to bear were not enough.

By the 1920s and '30s some school boards and local governments took over management of school lunch programs, but soon they, too, found the demands of the program outmatched their resources. Private donations weren’t sufficient;  federal funds were needed to support meals in schools. During the Great Depression, as farmers struggled with plunging prices, families suffered unemployment and even more children went hungry, President Roosevelt passed legislation that allowed the government to buy farm surplus, provide it to schools at a reasonable cost, and employ women to cook and administer hot lunch programs.

The impact of World War II made it even clearer that only federal support could sustain meals in schools. As labor and food were redirected to the war effort, lunch programs suffered. In 1941-1942, 454 million pounds of food were given to schools, but by 1944, that dropped to 93 million pounds. President Truman, shocked by a report that some draftees had been rejected because of lingering health effects from childhood malnutrition, signed the National School Lunch Act in 1946. 

The 1980s and 1990s were not as kind to the lunch program, as federal budget cuts slashed funding and President Reagan famously declared that ketchup counted as a vegetable to meet nutrition requirements. Food quality sometimes suffered, vending machines popped up in cafeterias and childhood obesity rates skyrocketed. 

The 2010 Hunger-Free Healthy Kids Act revamped nutritional standards, focusing on lowering fat, calories and sodium while increasing servings of fruit, vegetables and whole grains.

As the debate on nutritional standards continues, so does the issue of how to address school lunch debt. Nearly 25 million students don’t qualify for free or reduced price lunch and still have trouble paying. An organization called The School Lunch Fairy collects donations to set up “emergency lunch funds,” allowing students to pay for a meal if they have no money that day. In May of this year the Federal Anti-Lunch Shaming Act was introduced, proposing to eliminate some of the harsh methods used when kids can’t pay, such as banning wristbands and hand stamps of “no money” or taking away a meal once it has been served.

With more than 31 million kids served daily in 92 percent of public and private schools, the hot lunch program’s nutritional mission remains just as important as it was 100 years ago. As legislators and leaders argue over the best way forward, I’m going to continue to sneak a little extra Caesar salad on those trays ... 

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