Republicans worry that lunches could be the entering wedge for more welfare-state politics. (Toby Talbot/AP)
Julia Bowes is an assistant professor of U.S. and gender history at the University of Hong Kong.

As students started school this fall, they returned to cafeterias that were about to become the site of a pitched political battle. School leaders have been waiting to learn whether the Trump administration will make good on its promise to deregulate the strict guidelines for healthy school lunches mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a signature initiative of former first lady Michelle Obama.

The Trump administration has mocked the act, promising to “make school lunches great again.” But the initiative actually helps students in states where Trump supporters are most concentrated. That’s because it aims to counter the pronounced regional differences in obesity rates across the states — most notably the deep-red states of the South — ensuring the health of children nationally by setting nutritional standards for all schools.

Programs like Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids, which provide federal funds and set regulations for school lunches, have profound reach. During the past school year in New York City, for example, 75 percent of students qualified for free lunches. This year, after city officials discovered that the entire public school system was eligible for federal funding, meals will be extended to all 1.1 million children.

But the politics of school lunches also generate great controversy. That’s because they expose the chasm between Republican calls for local control of schools and Democratic efforts to extend the universal benefits of public education, a conflict that goes to the very heart of the partisan divide over the role of government in society. For better or worse, public schools — and the meals they dish out — have long served as a proxy for welfare programs in the United States.

Given the vital services public schools provide, particularly to poor and minority students, the outcome of the current disputes could have enormous ramifications not only for the health of children, but for wealth inequality across the board.

In the 19th century, public schools were the crown jewel of American statecraft. Out of the common school movement in the 1830s and 1840s, states across the country developed expansive systems of free, tax-funded public schools. The federal government played a vital, if indirect role, in stoking the development of public education through land grants.

Indeed, despite the decentralized structure of public schooling in the United States, the federal government has regularly stepped in to ensure that public schools are universally available and that minimum standards are met for all children regardless of the particular politics or preferences of local regions. For instance, no statewide public school systems existed in the South before the Civil War. During Reconstruction, the federal government made free school systems for white and black children a condition of reentry for former Confederate states. The same condition was applied to western territories seeking statehood.

Moreover, in a country where the development of strong state programs often lagged, public schooling stood out as the notable exception. Free public schools constituted the single largest state government expenditure, save for the Civil War, and were the largest government employer in the 19th century. This investment paid off: The United States boasted some of the highest rates of literacy and school attendance in the world.

But public schools did more than that: They served as incubators for a proto-welfare state. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the universalism of schools and the extensive bureaucratic apparatus tied to them became incredibly useful to progressive reformers. These reformers failed to enact goals like universal income support and universal health care thanks to an inhospitable political climate. But they discovered that they could experience far greater success by turning public schools into a primary vehicle for welfare programs.

Welfare programs often started local, particularly in cities, to meet pressing health problems as crowded classrooms became sites of infection. When doctors and nurses moved into schools, however, the programs quickly grew because medical inspections revealed broader, preventable health problems particularly among poor and immigrant children.

Reformers came to recognize that schools could play a role in redressing inequalities beyond education alone. Thanks to their activism, public schools began to offer much more than just education. Public health advocates used the schools to enforce vaccination requirements and to improve public health with free and compulsory medical examinations. Concern for students’ health extended to what they ate. Federally funded free lunches, first established by President Harry S. Truman in 1946, grew out of local penny lunch programs that had been in operation for decades.

Alongside this long tradition of statism and robust schools, however, there has been an equally strong tradition of resistance to public education and of demands to limit the role of schools in children’s lives — long couched in the language of parental rights and local control, and that often stemmed from concerns about the new role schools took in students’ lives beyond their education.

Former South Carolina governor Coleman Blease opposed compulsory education laws as late as 1910 to protect segregation (building upon long-standing fears that educating black children would lead to integration), as well as to keep poor white children working in the mills and black children in the cotton fields. Yet Blease framed his opposition as an affirmation of the authority of poor parents to “keep within your own control the rearing and education of your own children.” (Tellingly, Blease had risen to power in a proto-Trumpian fashion. He combined an erratic political platform with a knack for tapping into the prejudices of poor whites to seize the governorship.) In 1913, Blease also vetoed a bill providing free medical examinations in South Carolina schools as well.

The cry of parental rights was not just a clever line drummed up by conservative politicians who sought to limit the state’s role in children’s lives. In the Progressive Era, the rollout of health programs in public schools led many parents into anti-statist activism. “It is the school and not the child that is public,” cried the insignia of the American Anti-Vaccination League in 1905.

By 1910, parents who opposed vaccinations and in-school medical examinations joined forces with homeopaths to found the National League of Medical Freedom. On the local level, parents in the League led boycotts of schools’ medical examinations and lobbied to ban vaccination requirements. At the federal level, the League repeatedly thwarted efforts to establish a national Department of Health, warning that it would give the federal government the power to “invade the home,” abridge states’ rights and create a coercive medical monopoly.

Capitalizing upon the potency of this activism, conservative groups in the 1920s sunk the proposal for a Federal Bureau of Education by red-baiting, painting the proposal as a socialistic and Bolshevik initiative that would lead to governmental ownership of children. Unsurprisingly, parental choice, local control and states’ rights were offered as the bulwarks against this creeping red menace. The successes of this campaign limited the role the federal government played in public schooling for decades to come.

The politics of school lunches therefore presents a potentially combustible mess.

For conservatives, it is savvy politics to wind back the federal role in schools under the guise of championing “parental choice.” The idea of parental autonomy plays well with voters, as do jokes about the lack of salt and tasteless whole grains in school food.

Yet, while calls for narrowing the mission of schools and leaving child-rearing to parents sound appealing — asserting the primacy of parents in decisions about their children’s lives — limiting the role of government oversight will exacerbate inequality, compound health problems and punish kids for being poor.

Democrats would do well to remember that a full-throttled defense of public education is necessary to preserve not only the education system, but the imperfect and far-reaching welfare system embedded within it.