This year marks the 75th anniversary of the National School Lunch Program, the longest-running children’s health and welfare program in the United States — and due to the coronavirus pandemic, meals have been free to all children for the first time in U.S. history.
Today, there is broad political support for universal free meal programs, which research has shown can reduce food insecurity and improve students’ diets, academic performance and future earnings. In August, California became the first state to pass a bill that authorizes providing free meals for all public school students with no requirement for means testing. Other states are considering similar legislation, and a national bill may not be far behind.
While a universal free meal program would go a long way toward addressing critical inequities that shape the landscape of public education in the United States, the history of school meals suggests that to maximize the value of the program, such legislation must also address issues beyond financing and confront many of the long-standing problems with school meal programs, including a history of racism, poor labor practices and serving meals of dubious nutritional value.
School meal programs in the United States began at the end of the 19th century as a response to the effects of rapid industrialization on the health and welfare of children. Through the passage of compulsory education laws (which all 48 states had enacted by 1918), more children walked into schools each morning than into factories.
Accordingly, schools increasingly took on expanded social roles. Compulsory education facilitated an expansion of state influence over children and households, leading to state involvement in matters not only of education, but also of labor, welfare and other once-private domains like health. Public schools transformed into central civic and social institutions, offering health services like vaccinations and medical inspections, playgrounds and organized athletics, special classes and other supports for children with disabilities, and meal services.
This expanded role turned schools into a setting for the negotiation of social policy that redefined the boundaries between home and state, private rights and public welfare.
Early school meal initiatives operated in the quasi-official space between autonomous private agency and public entitlement. They launched in larger cities around the turn of the 20th century as an early form of public-private partnership: Schools typically provided space, equipment, water, power and in some cases, labor, while private charities provided the food and operational logistics. These “penny lunch” programs provided free meals to poor children and charged those who could afford them. The menus were often tailored to the ethnic and cultural preferences of students — for example, predominantly Jewish schools in New York City and other locations served kosher meals — and cooks were often hired from the communities served.
Most of the architects of such initiatives hoped that they would become permanent, publicly funded programs, with free meals for poor children as well as commensurate efforts in nutrition education, medical inspection, social work and more. These efforts met with varying degrees of success, but most schools did not have regular meal programs until the federal government began to subsidize meals — first through food and labor provision, and later through cash reimbursement — as an emergency measure during the Great Depression. Federal aid significantly expanded the number of meal programs nationwide, and their popularity grew to the extent that Congress made them permanent when the emergency measures were set to expire in 1946.
The passage of the National School Lunch Act in 1946 reflected a new era of more direct federal involvement in both education and public health — domains that traditionally fell under the purview of the states. Proponents were successful in securing legislation that permanently supported school meal programs and even provided free or reduced-cost meals to poor children. But the final legislation contained no anti-discrimination provisions, an effort to appease segregationists whose support was crucial to passing the bill, and, to appease the farm bloc, it prioritized agricultural support over children’s health.
These choices had long-lasting effects. In 1969, the Black Panther Party began a free breakfast program for children that ultimately served tens of thousands nationwide because poor Black students were not getting meals at school. Numerous cities that received federal money to provide free meals often cited inadequate kitchen equipment or other issues as an excuse for providing inexpensive cold lunches to poor students while providing warm meals in affluent districts.
Poor and minority students faced other indignities as well, including unhygienic lunchrooms. Parents in the Bronx, for example, advocated for plastic utensils and disposable plates because schools lacked dishwashers, and staff often had to buy soap themselves. Experiences such as these spawned the Right to Lunch movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Low federal reimbursement rates and local austerity policies also led to the airplane-style meals so emblematic of school meal programs since the 1970s. This shift significantly lowered costs — as scratch cooking required more equipment, space and time, as well as both culinary and dietetic expertise — but it also devalued and de-skilled the school meal labor force, incentivizing schools to hire workers part-time at very low wages, often without benefits, to simply heat and serve pre-prepared meals.
As a result, the very people charged with caring for children found themselves exploited by an uncaring system. Today, local school districts around the country grapple with the consequences of this penny-pinching as they face shortages of cafeteria workers, who play a significant role not only in children’s nutritional health but also their social and emotional well-being.
The covid-19 pandemic has made truly universal free meals politically permissible, much as the Great Depression did for a national school meal program nearly 90 years ago. But federal legislation can also permit significant local variation in implementation, which has historically harmed those who most needed the benefits. As recent debates over masking in schools and the challenges of establishing school vaccination clinics illustrate, schools continue to occupy the contested space where public health and private autonomy collide.
These debates revolve largely around who should bear responsibility for children’s health and welfare, and the extent to which individual choice should be prioritized over communal goods. It was not long ago that simply improving the nutrition standards to which school meals must conform sparked a vicious political debate over a program that has traditionally had broad bipartisan support. And at the end of last month, the Waukesha School Board in Wisconsin opted out of free and reduced-price meals on the grounds that students would “become spoiled.” Although the decision was ultimately reversed, it reveals that the of feeding children in schools is anything but a simple matter of financing.
Universal free meals have real potential to address inequities due to structural racism and other systemic causes of poor health, but the nutritional requirements, labor practices and general quality of school meal programs will continue to reflect societal valuation of health and well-being. More than just expanding funding, local, state and federal policymakers need to grapple with these issues to maximize the benefits of school meal programs.