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As a question of national policy, school lunch is at once simple and extraordinarily complicated. Is providing school lunch primarily a question of charity, education, health, or even national security? Such questions matter: Over the last century or so, the precise reasoning behind why America fed its students had a strong influence on how we did it. And the rationale has changed more times than you'd think.

The First Free Lunches

By the end of the 19th century, most American states had instituted compulsory education. Boarding schools have always had their own food infrastructure; small day-schools drew students from the immediate community, and during lunch break they could go home and eat there. What students ate was not the concern of the school—or of the state. But some early advocates were concerned, because not all children were getting enough to eat. In the 1890s, the settlement-house movement of women-led social services was gearing up, and women's pre-suffrage political participation was taking form. In 1894, in Boston and Philadelphia, two reform organizations started providing nominally priced lunches to schoolchildren, and the school lunch was born.

Feeding Kids to Fight Communists

The Great Depression left millions unemployed and farmers unable to sell all their food, resulting in a lot of hungry folks. School lunches killed three birds with one stone: As part of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration, the government bought up surplus agricultural products and hired women to cook and serve them to school kids. Farmers could depend on the state as a buyer of last resort, and hungry kids would get one sure meal a day. But there was another motivation: Since World War I, the Department of Defense had been concerned about the effect of malnutrition on the populace's readiness for war. And far from seeing school lunches as a big-government intrusion, conservatives like Georgia Congressman Richard Russell thought students who had a good lunch would be "much more able to resist communism or socialism."

An Ethical Imperative

The administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt worked to recruit the best and brightest social scientists to steer the national ship, and, when it came to school lunches, Roosevelt's administration tapped star anthropologist Margaret Mead. Mead believed in an ethical imperative to feed hungry children—recalling the school lunches of her grandmother's day, when privileged kids had apples and the poor had the cores—and Mead brought that conviction to the executive branch. She reoriented the WPA program toward well-rounded meals, rather than simply depending on farm surplus. So that the food would appeal to everyone, Mead suggested muted colors, bland tastes, and a single seasoning: salt.

Expansion of School Lunches Ends

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.

After World War II—and more concern about nutrition-related war-readiness—Congress passed the National School Lunch Act, which made the program permanent for the first time. Twenty years later, as a sally in the War on Poverty, Congress passed the Child Nutrition Act, which introduced breakfast programs and put the whole school-food system under the purview of the Department of Agriculture. American school lunches had been continually expanded for nearly a century when, in 1981, the Reagan administration cut school-food spending by $1.5 billion, raised eligibility standards, reduced portions, and, most famously, changed nutritional standards so that items like ketchup and pickle relish would qualify as vegetables. All of a sudden—and with little cause—money became the central school-lunch concern.

Enter the Corporate Suppliers

The cuts under President Ronald Reagan pushed districts to look for ways to economize, and corporate contractors saw a new market. Large multinational food service companies took over cafeterias to provide bland, colorless Mead meals—which happened to be a specialty of giant catering firms. Similarly, national fast food and soda brands offered districts lucrative deals for access to captive kids, returning the nation to what public-health researchers called a two-tiered school-food system, with the generic, free/cheap/subsidized pizza and pricey, name-brand premium pizza all in the same lunchroom. "For American agriculture," Susan Levine writes in her comprehensive history School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America's Favorite Welfare Program, "the significance of the National School Lunch Program by the 1990s had shifted from surplus commodity outlets to major markets for the food and food-service industries."

Solving Lunch Debt

The midday scholastic meal hit the news most recently when writer Ashley C. Ford brought national attention to the issue of lunch debt. Many districts have overdue accounts; a 2016 survey of school nutrition directors found that schools have a median student-meal debt of $2,000. Students who can't pay are at the mercy of school authorities, who are at the mercy of budget constraints. In a reversion to the very beginning of the American school lunch, charitable individuals and groups raised many tens of thousands of dollars to pay off lunch debts around the country—all in two months. In just over a century, we have seen school lunch come full circle: from the women of the settlement houses to the settlement birdhouse of Twitter fundraising. If we regress any further—and I fear we might—there won't be any lunch at all.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.