The History of School Lunch Programs: How Politics Shaped What Kids Eat

kids-eating-lunch boxes

Between 1948 and 1952, six schools used nearly 1000 students in nutrition tests. This revelation shows the deep roots school lunch programs in Canada have. They are influenced by school food politicsschool nutrition policies, and food policy choices, all affecting what children eat. This article focuses on the history of school lunch programs. It shows how politics have shaped the meals children get.

Marcus Weaver-Hightower, now a professor at Virginia Tech, spent 15 years studying school food politics. He looked at the U.S., England, Australia, and more. In his book, “Unpacking School Lunch: Understanding the Hidden Politics of School Food,” he talks about conservatives. His work discusses their attempts to stop food improvements in schools. Weaver-Hightower suggests ways to move forward for better school meals for everyone.

Origins of School Lunch Programs

The idea of school lunches started in Europe during the late 1800s. Places like Great Britain and Germany led the way, offering food and help to students. National governments made sure these programs were running well. The U.S. also began trying out school lunches, inspired by European examples, in the early 1900s. This was a time of big social changes known as the Progressive Era.

Early Efforts in Europe

In Europe, groups like religious organizations and women’s unions kick-started food programs. They noticed that many kids in cities were not eating enough. These efforts were local and not very organized. Some schools were worried about the cost of providing meals.

Progressive Era Initiatives in the United States

America’s rural areas, mainly in the South, faced tougher challenges in starting lunch programs. Issues like money, places to cook, staff, and community support slowed things down. This gap meant that city and country children did not have the same food opportunities at school.

Rural and Urban Disparities

Across the U.S., the launch of school lunches showed big gaps in access to food for students. This problem pointed out a need for a more united country-wide strategy. Everyone agreed that all kids should have a chance to eat healthy meals, no matter where they lived.

Nutrition and National Security Concerns

In the early 1930s, the Great Depression hit hard in the United States. Many kids were going to school with empty stomachs. So, local communities set up school lunch programs with help from charities and the state.

Back then, because of the tough economy, the federal government worked to help farmers. They tried to keep prices stable but ended up with too much food. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal offered a plan. It included feeding kids in school using the extra food.

Soon, the government started giving out this extra food to schools in need. By 1941, over 2.3 million students in the South were eating meals from the Surplus Marketing Administration’s school lunch program.

When the U.S. joined World War II, everything changed. The war meant costs were up, and the government had to cut back on school lunches. But they saw a big problem. Many soldiers, workers, and kids were not getting enough to eat. This was affecting their health.

Great Depression Era Programs

The Great Depression meant many kids were hungry at school. Communities started school lunch programs to help out. The government’s New Deal tried to balance farm prices and tackle the food surplus issue. It got involved by supporting school lunches and using extra food wisely.

World War II and Malnutrition Epidemic

Joining World War II led to changes in how the government supported school lunch programs. With prices rising, they had to cut back. They also noticed a worrying pattern. Many people, including soldiers, workers, and kids, were facing poor health because they didn’t have enough to eat.

Debates and Challenges

After World War II, people argued over expanding school lunch programs. They worried the way the government funded these programs didn’t encourage participation. Many local school districts hesitated to build cafeterias and buy kitchen tools without sure federal help. Southern Democrats didn’t like the idea of the federal government overseeing school lunch programs. They wanted the local areas to keep control.

Funding and Federal Oversight

In 1943, when the National School Lunch Act was first suggested, it faced opposition. Both careful spenders and those who valued states’ rights disagreed with the plan. They argued how the act would work in the South’s segregated schools. The act required schools to provide lunch without discrimination, follow federal nutritional rules, and use surplus goods.

Racial Segregation and Discrimination

Discussions about the school lunch program often connected to racial segregation and discrimination. Southern Democrats were worried about the effect on segregated schools. They didn’t want the federal program to weaken the system of segregation in southern schools. They feared that having to follow federal rules would challenge the segregation there.



Graduation rate for First Nations students in Manitoba

As low as 50% in recent years

Graduation rate for non-Indigenous students in Manitoba

Roughly 95%

Indigenous children in Manitoba child welfare system

90% of 11,000 children

Children supported by nutrition programs in Manitoba (2021-22)

Close to 34,000 through 302 programs

The numbers show big differences in how Indigenous and non-Indigenous students do in school and with lunch programs. They point to the ongoing problems of racism and discrimination in Canada’s school system.

Senator Richard B. Russell Jr.’s Contributions

Richard B. Russell Jr. served as Georgia’s governor and a U.S. Senator. He knew how vital farming was for Georgia’s economy. Russell strongly supported helping farmers and ensuring kids had enough to eat. He believed creating a national school lunch program would not only feed children but also benefit southern farms.

In 1946, Russell faced a big challenge trying to get this program started. Many different groups argued about how it should work. But Russell, with Senator Ellender, worked hard to push the plan through Congress.

Key Facts about Richard B. Russell Jr.

– Served as the 66th Governor of Georgia from 1931 to 1933

– Served in the U.S. Senate from Georgia from 1933 until his passing in 1971

– Chief sponsor of the National School Lunch Act, providing free or low-cost school lunches to impoverished students

– Chaired the Senate Committee on Armed Services from 1951 to 1969

– Candidate for President of the United States in 1948 and 1952

– Supported racial segregation and was a co-author of the Southern Manifesto

– Blocked the passage of civil rights legislation via filibusters

– Served in public office for fifty years as a state legislator, governor, and U.S. senator

See also  The Role of Technology in School Lunch Programs: Streamlining Ordering and Delivery

Passage of the National School Lunch Act

Both houses of Congress passed the National School Lunch Act after a few revisions. It had strong support from both liberals and conservatives. The National School Lunch Act debate was quick, lasting just three days in the House. Democrats had the upper hand, securing their win in both the House and Senate sessions.

Compromise Bill

Richard B. Russell Jr., a U.S. Senator from Georgia, knew how vital farming was. In 1946, he suggested a “compromise bill” to the Senate. He wanted to make sure different groups were happy with the bill.

Anti-Discrimination Amendment

Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. added an important amendment in the U.S. House. This change would stop federal funds to schools that didn’t include everyone in their meal plans. Powell’s amendment was the start of many efforts to stop racial discrimination in school meals. However, even though it was approved, it didn’t do enough to end discrimination in school lunches.

School Lunch Programs

The National School Lunch Program is linked to nearly every U.S. family, affecting millions of students. It started in 1946 to make the nation stronger by offering better nutrition to school kids. Over time, it’s become a complex operation run by various levels of government.

Agricultural Surplus Commodities

The program relying more on surplus farm goods than what kids need has sparked some debate. Also, political policies have sometimes stopped many kids from getting meals. This meant only certain children got the help they needed.

Nutritional Guidelines and Controversies

The rules about what goes into school lunches often stir up arguments. For instance, people have debated if ketchup should count as a veggie. Despite these debates, the program continues to offer crucial support. It gives healthy meals to millions of students, helping local communities and promoting sustainable food practices.

Transforming into a Poverty Program

The National School Lunch Program has shifted its focus over time. It used to be about the needs of students. Now, it’s often seen as a poverty program. This change is partly due to political barriers. These barriers limit how many kids get meals and which ones do.

This change has made people worry. They wonder if the program can still help with health, welfare, and fairness. Now, many people, especially in Canada, face food insecurity. In 2022, 1.8 million homes reported not having enough food. This number is up by 700,000 from 2021.

Grocery prices also went up by 8.5% in July 2022. This increase is making it harder for low-income families to buy food. Schools in Ontario are feeling the growing need for meals. They’ve seen demand rise by up to 40%. But providing these meals has gotten 40% to 80% more expensive since the pandemic started.

The school lunch program is no longer just about kids’ needs. It’s now about spreading the focus on helping those facing poverty. Donations are becoming more important. For example, the Breakfast Club of Canada relies on donations for 65% of its budget. But increasing reliance on donations means the program’s future isn’t certain. This change into a poverty program is a big deal. It affects if all kids, no matter their family’s income, will get healthy meals at school.

Obesity Epidemic and Health Concerns

In Canada, there’s talk about obesity being a big issue. Looking at the National School Lunch Program in the U.S. can help us understand. It used to focus more on using up extra farm goods than on keeping kids healthy with good food. So, kids often got greasy pizza in school. This led to worries about how this program affects kids’ health and the spread of obesity via school lunches.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act started changing things in 2010. It aimed to serve better meals at schools to fifty million children. It seems these changes led kids to eat more fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Over time, kids started to weigh a bit less, showing that this new way of eating made a difference. Less children were found to be overweight after these rules were put in place.

A study of over 14,000 students showed that the law had some good results. Kids from all income groups had lower BMIs. This means they weighed less, which is good news. The biggest changes were seen in kids aged 5 to 11 and 12 to 18. This shows the new rules helped kids of all ages.

But, some people worry that focusing on BMI might miss the point. Lower BMI doesn’t always mean a child is healthier. Others are cautious because school lunch programs often serve unhealthy choices. This is because they depend on what farmers have too much of, rather than what’s best for kids. So, there are still worries about the healthiness of school food.

About one in three U.S. kids and teens is too heavy. This can lead to serious health problems later on, like diabetes and heart disease. It’s important to help kids stay at a healthy weight as they grow. Making changes to school meals can be part of the solution to fight against obesity.

Key Statistics


Childhood obesity affects

18.5 percent of two-to-nineteen-year-olds in the US

School lunch programs reach about

fifty million US children and adolescents

Thirty million students nationwide are affected by the

National School Lunch Program

Fourteen million students nationwide are impacted by the

School Breakfast Program

Lower-income children participate at higher rates in

school meal programs

Privatization and Budget Cuts

The school lunch program in Canada is caught up in changes, from privatization to budget cuts. This affects the National School Lunch Program greatly. It’s been around for a long time, since last century.

The School Food Program now wants to help 400,000 more kids every year. This includes those from marginalized families. But, some are worried about less money for school lunches and more privatization.

Privatization Concerns in Ontario’s Education System


6% of students in Ontario currently attend private schools or are being home-schooled

Private schools divert hundreds of millions of dollars annually from the public education system

Voucher programs have not proven effective in improving academic achievement

Charter schools have not consistently outperformed traditional public schools, with transparency and accountability issues

Tax incentives for private school tuition could have cost taxpayers up to $500 million annually in Ontario

Traditional voucher systems have been unpopular in the U.S. due to concerns about diverting public funds to private institutions

See also  School Lunches and Food Deserts: Addressing Disparities in Access to Nutritious Meals

Despite the challenges, the School Lunch Program is key to Canada’s education and social welfare. It shows how politics and the economy impact food and nutrition. We must study its past and forces that will shape its future to ensure all kids eat healthy meals at school.

Enduring Popularity and Challenges

The National School Lunch Program faces many problems but stays popular. It helps feed kids who might not eat otherwise. As Levine says, the school lunch program has done better than most federal efforts from last century.

Still, it has serious hurdles. Agribusiness and food companies often put their interests first. This causes arguments about food quality, money, and what role the program should play in big school food and health debates.

Despite its problems, the school lunch program is used by over 29 million kids daily. But, it struggles. The strong influence from big food and agriculture often leads to choices that may not be the best for students’ health.

This brings up discussions on what the government should do. Should it make strict food rules and give more money for school lunches? These are ongoing debates.


Students Eligible for Free/Reduced-Price Lunch

Full Price of Lunch

Sorensen Magnet School of the Arts and Humanities



Doby Elementary



Fayston Elementary



The table shows how the school lunch program still struggles with health, fair share, and equality issues. Even though it tries to offer healthy meals to everyone, the different rates and costs suggest that not all kids can join in. Affordability, especially for those with less money, is a big problem.

These big school food policy debates keep changing the program. And they change the way it affects children’s lives in schools.


The National School Lunch Program’s history is both complex and fascinating. It reflects American culture and has evolved over time. It started in the early 1900s, focusing on nutrition and social progress. School lunch program history shows how our views on food have shaped the education system. This story also mirrors our wider concerns about food policies and politics in the U.S.

The program has grown and changed a lot, facing many challenges. Yet, it remains important for students, especially those in need. Despite critics, the program is known for helping students eat healthier. It also affects their learning and general health.

We must look at its past to decide its future carefully. Policymakers and others should think about its history. They need to focus on the politics and social issues that influence it. This will help the National School Lunch Program do even more for children’s health in Canada. By working on funding, rules, and the place of companies in the program, it can stay a key support for families and communities.


How did the Great Depression and World War II shape federal support for school lunch programs?

The Great Depression led to more focus on feeding children. Communities started their own lunch programs. World War II highlighted the importance of nutrition. The growing concern helped shape federal support for these programs, improving lunch services.

What were the key debates and challenges surrounding the passage of the National School Lunch Act?

In 1943, the National School Lunch Act faced challenges from different groups. Some people worried about the cost and states’ rights. Others debated over feeding children in segregated schools. Not everyone got on board, but the Act eventually passed.

How has the National School Lunch Program evolved over time?

Over time, the program focused more on helping poor kids and less on feeding everyone. Political barriers impacted which kids could eat these meals. Issues like using up surplus food and setting the right nutritional guidelines also sparked debates.

What are the current challenges and controversies surrounding the National School Lunch Program?

Today, the program faces many issues. Big food interests and ongoing nutrition debates affect it. There are struggles over money, health goals, and providing equal benefits. Criticisms about the program’s nutrition quality and cuts in funding have also caused problems.

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