Celebrating the History of the School Lunch Program

Part 2 of 3

By Antonia Demas, Ph.D.

THE NATIONAL SCHOOL LUNCH ACT

In June of 1946, The National School Lunch Act, (Public Law 396, 79th Congress) was signed into law by President Harry Truman.  This provided permanent funding from the Federal Government through the Secretary of Agriculture.  It was intended to:

  1. Assist with the health of the nation’s children, and
  2. Ensure a market for farmers.

Section Two of the law states the purpose of the Act:

It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the States, through grants-in-aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of foods and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation, and expansion of nonprofit school-lunch programs” (USDA:  1946:231).

The need for permanent status of the school lunch program was finally recognized and enacted into law.

Under PL 396, federal school lunch programs are administered by the states through participating schools.  Guidelines include:

  1. Lunches must meet minimum nutritional requirements set by the Secretary of Agriculture
  2. Free or reduced cost meals must be made available to children who local authorities determine are unable to pay;
  3. Discrimination against children unable to pay is forbidden;
  4. The program must be operated on a non-profit basis;
  5. Foods designated by the Secretary as abundant must be utilized;
  6. Donated commodity foods must be utilized; and
  7. Records, receipts, and expenditures must be kept and submitted in a report to the state agency when required.

The Act determined how funds should be apportioned among the states.  The Secretary was required to pay the states not less than 75 percent of the amount appropriated for food purchases to be used by the schools.  In the territories, (Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands), this amount could not exceed 3 percent.  The amount apportioned was based on two factors:

  1. The number of school children between the ages of 5 and 17, inclusive, in the state, and
  2. The need for assistance in the state as indicated by the relation of the per capita income in the United States to the per capita income of the state.

This allowed states with a lower per capita income to receive more federal aid per capita for implementing the lunch program than states with a higher per capita income.   To equalize payments, the matching requirement was reduced by the percentage below the national per capita income of any individual state.

Section Five of PL 396 set aside $10 million of the total appropriation each year to be apportioned among the states for the purpose of helping schools buy equipment.  Equipment expenditures could not come from the food funds.  Section 6 of PL 396 allowed for 3.5 percent of the appropriation to be used for administrative expenses.

Section Seven of PL 396 spelled out the formula for state matching funds.   From 1947 – 1950 each dollar of federal funds was to be matched by a dollar from the state.  From 1951 – 1955 each federal dollar was to be matched by one and one-half state dollars.  From 1955 on, each dollar from the federal government was to be matched by three state dollars.  Sources of matching funds payments could be:

  1. Income collected as payment for the lunches by those who did not qualify for free lunch,
  2. Financial support given by school boards, and donations of equipment, food, or labor made to the program.

Section Nine of the Act determined that the “lunches served should meet minimum nutritional requirements prescribed by the Secretary on the basis of tested nutritional research.”  The Secretary prescribed three types of acceptable lunches designated as Type A, Type B, and Type C.

Type A lunch was to provide one third of the minimum daily requirements of a child 10 to 12 years of age, and Type B was to be a supplementary lunch in schools that could not provide their students with a Type A lunch.  Type C lunch consisted of 1/2 pint of whole milk.  The guidelines describing Type A and Type B lunches were as follows:

                                                     Type A           Type B                     

Whole milk——————————————— 1/2 pint          1/2pint


Protein-rich food consisting of any of
the
following or a combination thereof:

Fresh or processed meat, poultry meat,
cheese, cooked or canned fish——————- 2 oz.      1 oz.

 

Dry peas or beans or soybeans, cooked—–1/2 cup         1/4 cup

Peanut butter————————————— 4 T.                2 T.

Eggs—————————————————–1                  1/2

Raw, cooked, or canned vegetables
or fruits, or both———————————–3/4 cup        1/2 cup


Breads, muffins or hot bread made of
whole grain cereal or enriched
flour——-1 portion      1 portion

Butter or fortified margarine——————– 2 tsp.           1 tsp. 

 

Reimbursement was made on the basis of the type of lunch provided with Type A lunch receiving a maximum of nine cents per lunch, Type B, six cents, and Type C, two cents.  State reimbursement was based on actual participation in the program, as reflected in standard records and reports.  Payments to the states were made on a monthly basis and no school could be paid more than the total amount spent for food.  Additional support came in the form of commodity donations.

Commodity Donations

Commodities are available through Section 32 of the Agricultural Act of 1935.  In addition, Section 416 of the Agricultural Act of 1949, authorized food purchases under price support programs.  Congress determines the prices the USDA may spend on staple, non-perishable items such as wheat, rice, dairy products, soybeans, corn, and peanuts.  The Secretary of Agriculture determines what foods are surplus and purchasable through this Act.

The way commodity foods are currently distributed, is either through “entitlement” or as “bonus” commodities.

Entitlement refers to a per lunch value of commodities to be used for each meal.  This amount is determined annually to reflect changes in the Price Index for Food Used in Schools and Institutions (USDA:  1988:5).  It is provided for each meal served regardless of family income of the participating child.

Bonus commodities are provided in addition to the entitlement commodities.  They allow the Secretary of Agriculture to donate surplus or price-support commodities.  The amount of bonus commodities available to schools varies from year to year.

In 1958 a few schools began experimenting with having private industry turn their donated foods into a completed product.  For example, a school might have its flour and cheese made into pizza so the school did not have to do the actual preparation itself.  Unfortunately, nutrition is often compromised when this happens.  Whole turkeys become turkey sausage, with added fat. Blueberries and white flour rather than whole wheat turn into muffins with added sugar and fat.  A whole food that was free to the school as a commodity becomes a fast food with added expense.

In June 1983, regulations were published in the Federal Register permitting agreements between the USDA and independent processing companies.  This allowed bonus foods to be processed by independent companies, and under the National Commodity Processing system, the USDA stipulated how these foods would be distributed.

Problems of the School Lunch Program

The National School Lunch Act has been amended numerous times since 1946.  Some of the more significant amendments occurred because of inequities in the system. School districts with a high proportion of children qualifying for free or reduced lunches felt the burden of trying to come up with matching funds.  They often lacked the facilities and sufficient equipment for operating a Type A lunch program.  Ironically, it was the wealthy suburban schools which were being subsidized by the federal government more heavily, since they could afford to have the facilities for a lunch program in place.  In 1962 Congress undertook an experimental program to try to deal with this problem by appropriating $10 million to be used by the Secretary of Agriculture for commodities.  $2.5 million of this was earmarked for special assistance to schools in economically deprived areas where either a lunch program was not in place or where at least 20% of the population qualified for free or reduced lunch.  This program was only in operation for one year due to its high cost and assisted 270 schools in 22 states (Gunderson:  op. cit.:17).  The problem of making sure that those most in need of school lunch meals actually received them has plagued the program since its inception.

Often the neediest children live in school districts without sufficient funds for kitchens.  Without major assistance from the Federal Government school districts cannot afford to build and equip cafeterias.  Even if the school has the physical set-up, a high proportion of free-lunch students means that it will be more difficult to make the program “pay” in terms of dollars and cents.

Decisions about who qualifies for a free or reduced lunch are made on the local level.  Without uniform standards, many students who need the service are not reached.  It has been found that even though discrimination against those who qualify is illegal, it is insidiously widespread.  In the book, Their Daily Bread, a 1968 study done by five different women’s religious groups, there is a chapter entitled, “Everybody Knows Their Names,” which documents the prevalence of discrimination in access to school lunch; and the failure of the school lunch program to help poor children (Robin:  1968).

The method of making commodity subsidy payments to farmers has favored the wealthy farmer.  In his book Let Them Eat Promises, journalist Nick Kotz wrote:

Although the programs were advertised as the salvation of the family farmer, four-fifths of the benefits went to the wealthiest farmers, and more than one million of the smallest farmers received scarcely any help at all.  As a vivid example, the largest 264 commercial farms in 1968 received $52 million in payments, as did the 540,000 smallest farms.  This meant an average government payment of $197,000 to the wealthy farmers, an average of $96 for the half-million small farmers.  The programs were designed to cope with the big farmer’s acreage problems, and the poorest farmers suffered almost as much as did the exploited farm laborer (Kotz:  1969:60).

Child Nutrition Act

Poverty and malnutrition were national issues in the mid 1960’s.  In 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson announced his “War on Poverty.”  In the same year the Economic Opportunity Act established feeding programs for Head Start children.  A report made by the Household Food Consumption Survey of 1965-66 pointed out that there had been a definite decrease in nutritional intake during the previous ten years (Van Egmond:  1985:14).

As a reaction, the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, Public Law 89-642, was passed by the 89th Congress.  It allocated additional funds to initiate new programs to improve the nutritional status of children.  Its purpose, like the School Lunch Act, was two-fold:

  1. To safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children, and
  2. To encourage the domestic consumption of agricultural and other foods by assisting states, through grants-in-aid and other means, to meet more effectively the nutritional needs of our children (89th Congress:  1966:885-890).

The Special Milk Program which had operated since 1954 under a separate Public Law, (PL85-478), was subsumed under this Child Nutrition Act.  The milk program was designed to encourage milk consumption by children and to make the surplus milk on the market available to schools.  Federal reimbursement for milk served is provided either at the free or paid rate (the free rate is the actual cost of the milk).   Investigative journalist Kotz questioned the primary intention of the milk program:  “The purpose was to help the milk industry, not to help children” (Kotz:  op. cit.:55).  In addition, a Pilot Breakfast Program was authorized for two years under PL 89-642, beginning in 1966.  Schools selected to participate were either in economically depressed areas or in areas where students had to travel long distances to get to school.  The breakfasts were required to meet nutritional standards set by the Secretary of Agriculture.  In cases of extreme need the school could be reimbursed at rates up to 80 percent of the operating costs.

Section Five of the Child Nutrition Act provided Non-food Assistance.  Funds were available for the purchase of equipment.  Schools would have to cover at least one fourth of the expense themselves with the possibility of up to seventy five percent of the expense being covered under this Act.  Targeted were poor schools which had inadequate kitchen facilities.

All of these extra programs required more people to administer them.  Under Section Seven of PL 89-642, Congress made available funds to employ more personnel.  During this period the school feeding programs became centralized and operated under the USDA.  Previously Health, Education and Welfare, the Office of Economic Opportunity, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs were involved in some manner with feeding school children.  All school food service programs, including those for preschooler’s, were placed under one federal agency, thus standardizing record keeping and streamlining the management of school lunch programs.

The War on Poverty

In 1967 Senators Joseph Clark and Robert Kennedy traveled to the Mississippi Delta to investigate claims of poverty and hunger.  They were appalled by what they found.  Following them a team of doctors sponsored by the Field Foundation and led by Dr. Robert Coles from Harvard, traveled to Mississippi to inspect the physical condition of people living there.  They found malnourished children suffering from diseases and dietary deficiencies.

“We saw children being fed communally – that is by neighbors, who give scraps of food to children whose own parents have nothing to give them.  Not only are these children receiving no food from the government, they are also getting no medical attention whatsoever.  They are out of sight and ignored.  They are living under such primitive conditions that we found it hard to believe we were examining American children of the twentieth century!” (ibid.:8).

They published their findings in a report entitled, “Children in Mississippi.”

The Coles report was followed by Hunger, USA, written by a group called the Citizens Board of Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition in the United States, published in 1968.  The effect of the book Hunger, USA was very similar to that of Poverty, published in 1904.  It drew national attention to the ugly truth of American society, that in “the richest country of the world,” people were starving.  The Citizens Board of Inquiry estimated that at least 14 million persons in America were suffering from hunger and malnutrition (Citizens Board of Inquiry:  1968:7).  No longer was this an issue that could be ignored.  Among some of the conclusions were the following:

“We feel fairly confident that most Americans must believe — if they think of it at all — that the federal food programs (including the school lunch program) are designed to serve the interests and needs of beneficiaries.  This is not true (ibid.:5).. . . The school lunch program has not been used to combat malnutrition and hunger among the poor.  At most, one-third of poverty-stricken children attending public schools participate in the school lunch program.  Despite express provision in the National School Lunch Act that they shall ‘be served without cost or at a reduced cost’, a majority of poor children are forced to pay the full price for school lunch or go without.  The school lunch in fact operates for the benefit of the middle class” (ibid.:68).

However, the book did recognize the potential of the school lunch program to alleviate hunger and malnutrition.

A 1968 a CBS television documentary entitled “Hunger in America,” brought the reality of poverty and hunger into the living rooms of many Americans and shocked the nation.

President Richard Nixon in 1969 stated, concerning hunger in America, “Something very like the honor of American democracy is at issue.”  He established the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which was to operate under the USDA to administer federal food programs including the school lunch program.  That same year saw the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health at which recommendations were made to expand the school lunch program to every school in the U.S. and to ensure that needy children be given free lunches and breakfasts (White House Conference on Food, Nutrition & Health:  1970:pp,148, 249, 252, 269).

Finally, in fiscal year 1969, the free lunch program was funded to cover actual costs.  This resulted in a significant increase in the number of free lunches served.  Studies such as one reported on by Dr. Arnold Schaefer, Director of the National Nutrition Survey, before the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, made the connection between good early nutrition and mental abilities.  Dr. Schaefer stated:

“The evidence points toward the fact that malnourished children are more difficult to teach and that they have a lower mental score.  The risk of retarded neurological and mental development is such that it cannot be tolerated or ignored… When the children were in a boarding school and given the proper food, proper health care and proper education, the high prevalence of some of our biochemical findings disappeared” (Senate Hearings:  1970:785-6).

Nutrition Education

On the other hand, affluence did not ensure good nutritional habits.  The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service conducted a study in 1965 which found that over one third of upper income families surveyed had diets that did not meet the minimum daily requirements and that nine per cent of these families had diets rated as poor (Gunderson:  op. cit.:24).  The need for nutrition education is obvious.

In an amendment of Section Six of the National School Lunch Act, passed in 1970 by the 91st Congress, the Secretary of Agriculture was authorized to spend one percent of the National School Lunch Act funds for “training and education for workers, co-operators, and participants in these programs and for necessary surveys and studies of requirements for food service programs in furtherance of the purposes of the Acts.”  The Child Nutrition Act was likewise amended to earmark one percent of its funds for special development projects, subject to approval by the USDA.  A National Advisory Council on Child Nutrition was established through Section 14 of the National School Lunch Act.  It was composed of thirteen professionals working in capacities directly related to the lunch program.  Their task was to make recommendations on how child nutrition and school lunch programs might be improved.

In August of 1979, federal regulations required that school districts promote activities that involve children and parents in their food-service programs (Van Egmond:  op. cit.:20).  Examples of these activities include menu planning, taste test panels, enhancing the eating environment, and promoting the program.

Revision of Meal Standards

In the 1970’s nutritionists began criticizing the Type A meal as being unresponsive to age and body type differences (ibid.:28).  Critics also felt that the regulations were too narrow regarding foods that could be included.  The same meal was prescribed for the obese student as for the athlete.  The sugar and fat content was called into question.  Nutritionist Jean Mayer stated that meals should be a form of preventive medicine, and as such, a way to educate students about good nutrition (Mayer:  op. cit.:612).  Interim regulations were issued in August 1979 that made the following changes:

  1. Expansion of bread alternates to include rice and pasta
  2. Requirement that schools offer unflavored low-fat, skim, or buttermilk
  3. Requirement that schools devise a program of student involvement
  4. Requirement that schools devise a program of parent involvement
  5. Recommendations that schools not offering a choice of meat or meat alternate each day do not serve the same form of meat or meat alternate more than three times per week; that fat, sugar, and salt be kept at moderate levels; and that menus should include several foods containing iron each day, vitamin A-rich foods at least twice a week, and vitamin C-rich foods several times weekly.

On May 16, 1980, after ten years of discussion, the designation, “Type A” was dropped and the lunches became known as, “School Lunch Meal Patterns.”  The new regulations called for:

  1. Varying portion sizes for children of various ages.
  2. Allowing schools to serve lunch to children aged 1 to 5 years at two service periods.
  3. Increasing the required quantities of two meat alternates — eggs and dry beans or peas — to be nutritionally equivalent to meat and the other meat alternates. (this number was revised again in August 1982 to quantities specified in the old Type A meal) and;
  4. Changing the bread requirement to specify the number of servings required by week and to increase the total number of servings required.

Vending Machines

Before 1972, it was illegal to operate commercial vending machines in schools that were participating in the school lunch program.   Once the vending companies fought their way in, there was public concern about the nature of some of the items being sold.  Competitive foods regulations were issued in 1980 restricting the sale of:  soda waters, water ices, chewing gum, and certain candies.  The regulation was overturned by a judge in 1984 in a suit by the National Soft Drink Association.  The judge said that the Secretary of Agriculture had “overstepped his authority,” and that the Secretary could only regulate the cafeteria area (Van Egmond:  op. cit.:34 & 299).  It is currently up to local school districts to decide if they want to allow vending machines in other areas of their schools.

Reaganomics (1980 – 1988)

President Ronald Reagan’s early budget cuts had a drastic effect on child nutrition programs.  For the first time since 1966, the school lunch program budget was decreased.   As a result, prices charged to the students had to increase, resulting in less participation in the program.  At the same time, the number of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch increased, due to high unemployment and the poor economy (ibid.:36).  Another change was that parents whose children were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch were required to give their social security number on the application form. This discouraged some from applying.  In 1983, verification of information on the form also became a requirement.

One infamous example of the Reagan administration’s trying to save money was the designation of catsup as a vegetable.  (Tomatoes, the primary ingredient in the sweetened condiment that Reagan wanted to count as a vegetable, are actually a fruit).  Part of the thought behind this was to reduce expenses by including more foods on the permissible list.  Thought must be given to the nutritional content of these additional “foods” or health is compromised.

In a Reagan proposal called “the New Federalism” budget cuts in education would have forced local schools to cover for the first time the cost of such items as fringe benefits for school lunch personnel.  If President Reagan’s “New Federalism” proposals had been adopted, the school lunch program would probably have been terminated (ibid.:37).  Fortunately, there was effective lobbying by the School Board Association and the American School Food Service Association as well as other groups and the proposal failed.

“Offer versus Served”

“Offer versus served” was first experimented within high schools and then became a local option at all grade levels.  Under this plan, all components of the meal must be offered to the child and each child can choose what s/he wanted.  This option ended up saving money and helping with the problem of plate waste.  The issue of “plate waste”, or food served that the children did not eat, received a great deal of attention in the 1970’s.   As a result, more choices and variety were offered, food quality improved, varied portions were offered, and a view of the child as a customer to please, rather than as a lucky recipient, were adopted.

The Changing Regulations

When William Clinton was elected to replace George Bush as President there came a change in administration of the school lunch program nationally.  Ellen Haas, founder and former director of the consumer action group, Public Voice, was appointed as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture in charge of Food and Consumer Affairs which oversees the school lunch program.   Haas’s organization, Public Voice had a long record of being critical of the school lunch program because of the program’s high fat content and low nutrient density.

Since the USDA had not been successful in meeting their own recommendations for implementing the dietary guidelines for school lunch (USDA: 1994), Haas held a series of hearings in four different regions of the country to listen to more than 350 experts and interested citizens.  She also received written testimony from more than 2,000 people.  Based upon the comments received, Haas proposed to change the laws regulating school lunch, laws that have been on the books since 1946 when the School Lunch Act was first initiated.  Haas and the Secretary of Agriculture announced their School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children in June 1994. This initiative stated that all American public schools had until 1998 to conform to the dietary guidelines in their school lunch programs.  It required among other things that the average fat content must be 30% or fewer calories from fat over the course of a week.  This announcement created quite a bit of controversy; the Food Service Association, and the meat and dairy industries were upset over the proposed change.  However, groups such as Public Voice that have long been critical of the nutritional quality of school meals, were impatient to see the changes in place.

The same initiative proposed new program regulations for the School Lunch Program.  For the first time in 48 years, the School Lunch Program faced a major revision.  The USDA’s School Meal Initiative for Healthy Kids was developed, after a year of input from the public, through hearings, meetings, and roundtable discussions, to determine ways to improve the school lunch program across the nation. The proposals include:

*By the 1998 school year, schools be required to serve meals that meet federal Dietary Guidelines:  no more than 30 percent of calories from fat, and no more than 10 percent from saturated fat.

*Introduce a new, flexible, easy-to-use system of menu planning that will ensure that every school meal delivers the vitamins, minerals and food energy that children need.

*Provide technical help to school food service staffs so they can meet the new standards.

*Teach children about nutrition so that they will choose foods that are good for them.

*Streamline the administration of school meals so that local school food service staffs can concentrate less on bureaucratic red tape and more on providing good food for their students (USDA:  Sept. 1994).

This proposal was first published for public comment in June 1994 and became a federal mandate for all schools participating in the NSLP.

Unfortunately, few schools have been able to meet this mandate in terms of reducing the fat content below 30%, a figure many nutritionists feel is still too high.  At the time of the proposed legislation, school meals nationally averaged 40% fat calories.  Menus generally have changed little, serving the same meat-centered entrees.  Rather than cut way back on animal foods, which are generally high in fat, the USDA has proposed that food service workers place cooked hamburger meat under the faucet to “wash away some of the fat calories.”  This approach does not sufficiently reduce the fat and compromises taste.  Meat at the center of the plate is no longer a viable choice, based upon contemporary knowledge about diet and its relationship to chronic disease.  There has not been an effective way for the USDA to monitor the amount of fat that is currently in school meals.

Since the mandate, nutrition education has not been effective in getting children to choose healthier foods.  Most schools do not have a cohesive nutrition education curriculum in place.  Materials provided for free by the meat and dairy industries are the most widely used in the classroom.  These materials contain an inherent bias.

The USDA has cautiously suggested that yogurt and soy might be acceptable protein foods.  Legumes are a commodity food that is naturally low in fat and high in nutrients.  Legumes should be featured in the lunch program along with many of the plant-based commodity foods.

Schools have allowed a most disturbing trend to occur.  They are contracting with fast food chains such as McDonalds and Pizza Hut to run the school Meals program.  Child health is compromised when this occurs, and it is short-sighted in terms of costs.  The resulting health care costs down the road will be enormous.  In addition, schools are allowing soda companies to put their vending machine in schools in exchange for funds for athletics. Exclusive contracts were made between the soda company and the school so that soda was readily available to the students.

Another issue that needed to be addressed by the public is the fact that milk was still a requirement in school meals.  Many of the children who receive free meals are lactose intolerant.  The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has filed a lawsuit to try to bring this issue to public attention.  In addition, 6 of the 11 members of the committee that is revising the Dietary Guidelines had direct ties to the meat and dairy industries which constitutes a serious conflict of interest.  We need to put child health before business interests and serve children foods that will enhance their health and lives.  Child obesity has grown at an alarming rate.  We owe it to our children to feed them foods that will counter this trend.

Food Based Menu Planning vs. Nutrient Standard Menu Planning

In an attempt to allow for more flexibility in planning menus, the USDA introduced a Nutrient Standard Menu plan. Under this plan, foods served in the NSLP over the course of a week, must be analyzed using USDA software and shown to meet 1/3 of the RDA for calories, calcium, iron, protein, vitamin A and vitamin C.  In addition, the meals over the course of a week must contain no more than 30% calories from fat, with less than 10% of fat calories coming from saturated fat.  The Food Based Menu plan requires a standard serving size of meat or meat alternate, grains, vegetable/fruits, and milk.  These foods must be served in each lunch.

CONCLUSION

The school lunch program in America began as a humanitarian feeding program to address the problem of child malnutrition, a problem which became unavoidably apparent with the advent of compulsory education.  During the first half of the twentieth century the school lunch program gradually evolved into one of the largest social welfare programs in the United States.  With an annual budget of about $28 billion a year [1], daily school lunches are now served to over 30 million children every school day [2].  While the school lunch program can be viewed as having succeeded in its feeding role, it has fallen far short of its potential as an effective vehicle for nutrition education.

The criticisms leveled at the enormous welfare bureaucracy in the U.S., (i.e. that it provides the poor with short term help but does not equip them with the skills and motivation to improve their lot in life), might be directed at the school lunch program as well.  While millions of children are provided with up to two thirds of their caloric requirements during their school years through the breakfast and lunch program, there seems to be no carry over into their eating habits or their understanding of basic nutrition.  It is depressing to know that just as many young men were found to be malnourished during the conscription screenings of World War II as had been found in World War I, despite a tremendous growth in the school lunch program.  It is equally depressing to realize the increase in child obesity over the past ten years stemming from the opposite side of malnutrition, (i.e. excess).

Millions of children eat in school cafeterias every school day of their school years.  What do they learn from this experience?  From my personal observations over the years and my readings, the unavoidable answer is that our children are not learning much about food and nutrition from their twelve years of eating in school cafeterias.  They eat what is set before them with no conception of its food value, or where it comes from.   In addition, the cafeteria environment is an area that needs to be seriously analyzed.  The noise level of most cafeterias is intolerable.  Children are not able to develop the social skills and the art of conversation that used to develop and be nourished over the family table.  Contemporary school lunchrooms are a far cry from Nellie Farnsworth’s statement more than 100 years ago, that, “the tendency is to cultivate a spirit of refinement and cheer.”  We need to quit viewing this program as the “school feeding program” and start thinking of how we can make it into the “school dining program.”  There is a clear analogy to animal feedlots – herd them in quickly, feed them high density foods in a short amount of time in crowded conditions.  We must give serious attention to the eating environment of the school and appreciate the fact that this could be a way to foster social skills in children.

To be fair, there were some early efforts to use the lunch program for educational purposes.  In these attempts, foods used were selected on the basis of known nutritional information.  Any food deemed to have empty calories or to be of questionable value was not used.  The students sometimes had a direct hand in preparing these foods.  During those years (1890 -1945), when the school garden movement was popular, children also had a hand in growing the food, an activity that gave them the satisfaction of creating something useful, and skills they could use later in life.

Unfortunately, this aspect of school curricula appears to be totally lost today, despite the fact that we know that the school lunch program can be used, with a little imagination, as a twelve-year lab experience in nutrition education.  By integrating the lunch program into the academic curriculum of the school, we can achieve important nutrition education goals at a fraction of the cost of the overall cost of the school lunch program.

The current concerns about obesity in children and the popular interest in health indicate that society is ready to see the school lunch program develop into an effective force in educating children about food and nutrition.

The goals for such a program should be:

  1. Teaching basic nutrition concepts and their relationship to health;
  2. Teaching basic cooking and menu planning skills;
  3. Exposing children to a wide variety of foods and cultures;
  4. Imparting a basic understanding of the food system and its impact upon the environment on a regional and global scale.

[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/632322/us-national-school-lunch-program-federal-costs-timeline/

[2] https://www.fns.usda.gov/nslp/nslp-fact-sheet

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