Our 70-Year School Lunch Food Fight

A school lunchNote: A version of this article was previously published by Politico on March 17, 2016.

Should school kids have more fish on their lunch trays? That is just one of the questions that will need to be settled before the National School Lunch Act is reauthorized. Republican Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski —of Alaska, not coincidentally— think they should. They introduced their salmon-for-school bill in late February.

The law currently defines “domestic commodity” to mean “an agricultural commodity that is produced in the United States” and “a food product that is processed in the United States substantially using agricultural commodities that are produced in the United States.” S. 2529 would expand this “buy American” provision to also mean “a fish or fish product” harvested the United States’ “exclusive economic zone,” much of which surrounds Alaska.

Sen. Murkowski with a salmon.

If adopted, the measure would force local school officials’ to purchase fewer fish sticks from foreign waters. With 30 million children participating in the $13 billion lunch program, the fish bill could be a windfall. “I’m proud to join my colleagues to support this legislation, giving us the opportunity to put more of Alaska’s world-class, sustainably-harvested seafood onto the plates of America’s youth nationwide,” declared Murkowski.

The legislation’s arrival may well have elicited groans within the Russell building, which houses the Senate’s Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. Just a month earlier, the committee had reported its 210-page bill, which reauthorizes the school lunch act and the complimentary childhood nutrition act.

Brokering the bipartisan agreement had taken more than a year. As with any government program, there were feuds over funding and waste, fraud, and abuse. But at least as dicey were the spats over what goes on kids’ plates. Chairman Pat Roberts, R-KS, and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, had to broker deals regarding the amounts of whole grains, sodium, and fresh fruits and vegetables. They also had to add a provision directing the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture to allow more “culturally appropriate” foods to be served at schools serving American Indian students.

And now comes the fish issue, which the Senate will have to hash out along with who-knows-how-many beefs the House agriculture committee may have. (The House also has a fish bill.)

Sen. Roberts, perhaps inadvertently, hit on the fundamental dissonance in the federal government’s effort to feed kids. These policies, he told the committee, “contain critical programs of importance for Kansas and to every state—our farmers, our ranchers, our growers, and our friends and neighbors that need help including, of course, hungry children.” Note who comes last.


The National School Lunch program was launched 70 years ago. The legislation, which ran a mere 3 pages, declared “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.” To these ends, the law authorized the Department of Agriculture to offer grants to state education agencies, who could use the money to buy surplus farm products and operate school lunch programs.

NARA School Lunch 1944
Source: National Archives and Records Administration

Children’s diets first popped onto the federal policy agenda during World War I, notes Susan Levine, author of School Lunch Politics (2008). In sizing up recruits, the government found surprising levels of malnutrition and stunted growth. Thus, at the behest of “women’s clubs, community groups, health departments, and teachers … examinations and weigh-ins [of pupils] became common in schools throughout the country.” Johnny’s diet and well-being became the concern of the national state.

The Great Depression catalyzed federal action. Millions of Americans lost their jobs and the means to purchase sufficient food. Children nationwide began suffering the effects of malnutrition, including malnutrition and leg-bowing rickets. Plunging demand for food made for plunging prices for foodstuffs. Farmers responded by growing more, worsening the situation. Congress established the Commodity Credit Corporation 1933, which bought up excess food to stabilize food prices. Some of it was allowed to rot, but some was distributed through relief programs, including public and school cafeterias.

Congress enacted an additional policy in 1936 that empowered the USDA to purchase more excess farm products and to distribute them to state welfare agencies for the hungry and for schools. The federal Home Economics Bureau supplied school with suggested recipes a for making use of the surplus commodities, and invented the idea of “recommended daily allowances” for calories, vitamins, and food groups. The Works Progress Administration funded the manpower (and womanpower) to help operate school lunch programs in 35,000 schools, and the National Youth Administration employed approximately 16,000 pupils to clean school cafeterias. By 1936, 350,000 school children in 60,000 schools participated daily in the program.

The second World War grew the program further. Recruits in large numbers were disqualified for service due to afflictions—like pellagra— from inadequate diets. War needed strong men. Rep. John Flanagan, D-VA, thundered that democracy “is not the creature of intellectual weaklings any more than it is the creature of physical weaklings. It sprang from the loins of men of strong men and bodies. And if it is to be preserved it will be preserved by the same kind of men.” Proponents of school lunch programs also pointed to Rosie the Riveter. No longer could kids leave school to eat lunch—mom wasn’t home any more.

The program’s growth skyrocketed: Congress ponied up $50 million in 1943 for school lunches, which served 5 million pupils—a quarter of those enrolled in school. That year the Roosevelt administration moved the school lunch program (for a few years) from USDA to the War Food Administration. It relaunched it as the Community School Lunch program, and further modernized it. Local school systems now had to apply for the program and sign a contract and meet conditions for receiving food aid and getting federal reimbursement for lunches served.

Sen. Richard B. Russell, for whom the national school lunch act was renamed in 1999, greatly admired this relief program. The Georgia Democrat aided its growth from his chairmanship of the Senate subcommittee on agricultural appropriations. It struck him as a win-win proposition: farmers got higher prices and a guaranteed market for their foodstuffs, and poor kids like those back in Georgia got fed.

Richard B Russell
Sen. Richard B. Russell. Source: Wikipedia

Russell feared the program might disappear at the war’s end. The federal government had little role in America’s schools, and many in Congress wanted to keep it that way. The House, in fact, tried to zero out the program in 1943. Some critics found the program too costly; others thought it was creeping socialism that drove a government wedge between children and their mothers. Congressmen from segregationist states also feared a lunch program might be a camel’s nose for the government to tamper with segregated schools.

Sen. Russell introduced permanent legislation in 1944, and diverse interest groups aided his effort: children’s welfare advocates, Parent-Teacher Association chapters, farm and food industry lobbies, physicians, nutritionists (who cared about kids but also wanted to be hired by school lunch programs), and educators. The Roosevelt administration was supportive, and Surgeon General Thomas Parran testified in favor of it. Russell, who was openly racist, assured his anxious colleagues the bill gave federal officials “no authority what-ever over the management of the schools.” His legislation limited the USDA to interacting with state education agencies, not local school systems. States were great discretion over administering the program, and would decide which schools and kids would participate. Russell garnered additional congressional support by allowing private and parochial schools to participate.

Congress voted overwhelmingly for the legislation, and Harry Truman signed it on June 4, 1946. In its first year, the program got its largest appropriation ever: $75 million.


The national school lunch program has proven fabulously popular with politicians and interest groups, if not the kids who eat the meals. Congress has expanded it repeatedly.

Today, the Russell act is 135 pages long. The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 added to it free breakfasts, and a 1968 statute created summer food giveaways.  Congress added preschools and daycares to the program in 1975, and added an after-school snack and supper benefit. Non-school institutions, like temporary shelters for abused children and juvenile detention centers, also benefit from the school lunch program. Additionally, the federal government helps with states’ administrative costs and offers grants to help purchase cafeteria equipment. Kids in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the American Virgin Islands participate.

About 99,000 institutions participate, and 5 billion lunches participate annually. Three-quarters of the children fed are sufficiently poor to receive their lunches at no cost. Another 7% of participants qualify for reduced-priced lunches. The remaining students pay the full lunch price, which tends to be paltry. (It is $2.10 in Washington, DC.)


Children Served by School Lunch Program
Data from USDA Economic Research Service. Graphic by Kevin R. Kosar.

The school lunch program today is less a surplus commodity program than it was 70 years ago. Excess farm foodstuff is about 10% of the total value of the program. Nearly all the rest is funds. This is because Congress made school lunches into a quasi-entitlement, a form of welfare. Congress appropriates the funds, but does so based upon the law’s criteria for eligibility and the certification of participants. The school lunch and related programs work on a reimbursement basis. Schools spend money to feed kids, and the federal government reimburses them based upon the need of the kids served. The poorer the child fed, the higher the reimbursement. (This is why parents of school-aged kids must fill out forms asking for their names, family membership, and income at the beginning of each school year.)

Yet, the national school lunch program cannot escape its inherent internal contradiction.

It is a Department of Agriculture program, and inevitably agricultural interests conflict with the interests of children. It is right there in the program’s statute, which has not been changed since 1946. The program’s goals are “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.”

In its early days, the commodity surplus aspect of the program could be particularly problematic. There is no necessary coincidence between agricultural surpluses and balanced meals. Unexpected gluts meant school districts often found themselves with heaps of almonds and apricots one month, then surfeits of onions and eggs the next. School administrators reported of massive amounts of food being rejected by kids.

USDA commodities infographic
Graphic Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

The most longstanding battle has been the nutritional standards USDA sets for the meals and snacks served. Before the Russell’s bill got a vote, the GOP’s leader, Sen. Robert Taft, R-OH, warned the school lunch program was not just a free food giveaway—it came with federal strings. It would empower “federal nutrition experts” to exert “control over the diet and food of the people of this country.”

Nutrition standards are perilous because they are exclusionary: they affect what may be served to children and in what quantities. School food (lunches, snacks, etc.) is a huge market—the federal government alone spends $19 billion on it, which does not count the billions spent by states and localities.

Agricultural interests rely on congressional allies to help them, particularly the farm state members who dominate the committees. Indicative of the sensitivity of the issue, the Senate’s agriculture committee’s title did not include the word “nutrition” until 1977. Russell himself nudged the USDA to have lunches use more Georgia products, like chicken and peanuts. Five years ago, Sen. Susan Collins famously battled the Food and Nutrition Service over the white potato. The FNS’s proposed nutrition standards would have lessened the weekly recommended portions of starchy foods. With the help of another spud-state senator, Mark Udall, D-CO, Collins beat back the rule by winning an amendment to the farm appropriations bill. “Potatoes,” Collins crowed, “have more potassium than bananas. They are cholesterol-free and low in fat and sodium and can be served in countless healthy ways.”

It did not have to be this way. One can imagine a school lunch program run as a school program solely for the purpose of promoting the health and well-being of children. The Department of Education would disburse the funds and set basic benchmarks for healthy meals. States and localities would remain free to purchase the foods they deem best, but their efforts would be graded. Each year, the Department of Education would release annual report cards on school systems’ meals relative to the nutrition benchmarks. Instead national food fight, with agricultural interests fighting for plate space, America would have a basic food support system for children that respects local dietary diversity but encourages schools to achieve higher nutritional standards.

In fact, when Congress was debating the national school lunch act, another bill was offered to lodge the program under the U.S. commissioner of education. Russell fought the legislation. He knew it would weaken the hand of agricultural interests by removing the program from the purview of the agriculture committee and the agricultural appropriations subcommittees.


Will the Senate’s sprawling school lunch bill make it to the president’s desk before its 70th anniversary in June? It is hard to say.

To date, the House has not unveiled its lunch legislation. Perhaps it intends to use the Senate legislation as its working copy. Regardless, the House bill also will have to navigate a companion fish-for-kids bill, which was introduced by Rep. Suzane Delbene.

Maybe more daunting is the ongoing frozen fruits and vegetable kerfuffle. The 2002 farm bill added a new benefit: the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program, which subsidizes school purchases of fruits and vegetables. The snacks program has grown from a small pilot program to a $168 million initiative operating in all 50 states and the territories.

So, naturally, canned and frozen food advocates have moved in. They won a small victory in 2014. That year’s farm bill funded $5 million pilot program that allowed purchases of dried, canned, and frozen foods. The Senate’s legislation adds a small loophole that allows FFVP program participants to apply for a waiver allowing some purchases of not-fresh produce.

But advocates want more.

Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-ME, has sponsored the oleaginously named Fruit and Vegetable Access for Children Act. It would redefine the words “fresh fruits and vegetables” to mean “fresh, canned, dried, frozen, or pureed.” Poliquin argues that changing the law will help Maine farmers’ It also is good for the kids. “By enabling schools to serve fruits and vegetables, in a variety of forms, we are teaching children that nutritious foods come in many different sizes, shapes, colors and packages—from frozen blueberries, to canned peas, to fresh peaches and dried apricots.” The bill has 17 co-sponsors.

Come autumn 2016, then, students coming back to schools may find more salmon and canned pears awaiting them. Bon appétit, kiddos!

Kevin R. Kosar is the director of the governance project at the R Street Institute and the creator of the Federal Education Policy History website. He is the author of Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education.

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