Food, Glorious Food: The Evolution of School Lunches from 1946 to 1970

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Everyone has eaten a lunch in schools at one point or another, but have you ever wondered where the food actually comes from? The National School Lunch program is a meal program established by the federal government that is designed to run in public schools as well as in non profit private schools aiming to provide nutritional meals for children every single day. This essay will examine how exactly The National School Lunch Program in The United States has evolved from 1946 to the 1980s. In doing so, it will become clear who the federal Government was looking to please over the years and will further explain why certain foods were accessible in schools in some years but not others.

The story of this program consists of the federal government making various promises to several different groups of people that were changing over time. The National School Lunch Program began in 1946, a time where the federal government was solely focusing on the needs of farmers by purchasing their excess crops. But the Program outcomes changed and shifted by 1950, when the quality of surplus food improved, making school lunches more nutritious for children. Finally by the 1960s, the federal government had more funds to distribute a wider variety of food options, making them more accessible and less expensive for schools allowing much more free nutritional support for low income areas.

In the years leading up to 1946, nutrition reformers, specifically women that worked closely in home economics food research, were finally granted what they worked hard for for years. This ‘success’ was known as the National School Lunch Program but it initially did not exactly pan out how they dreamed it would and in fact took over twenty years before being a true success all around. The National School Lunch Program was created “as a measure of national security, to safe courage the health and well-being of the nations children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other foods.” (Gunderson, 14-15) While this sounds like it would work wonders on a society that recently exited a time of extreme struggle known as the Great Depression, it was not nearly as easy as it sounds. The National School Lunch Program was established in a time where it was safe to say that what kinds of foods children were consuming was not high on the list of things to worry about in schools in America and children’s nutrition certainly “took a back seat to other interests.” (4) While the Programs aim on the surface was to “rescue children from greasy food and teach students to prefer zucchini over french fries” (introduction), they were left with no choice but to only have the capability of serving ‘greasy foods’ due to the fact that they were the only affordable foods in this time period. The administrative structure of the National School Lunch Program “limited its ability to deliver universal child nutrition or to feed poor children” (72) which were two of the sole purposes the program existed in the first place. This poses the question of whether this program was a success in the earlier years specifically.

In short, the answer to this question seems rather clear in that The School Lunch Programs did increase tremendously in the twenty five year span. While this answer is expected, it is fascinating to examine why exactly this was and display just how many parts there are to what seems as though a rather simple issue of putting meals on childrens plates. This simple issue, was by no means simple.

While the National School Lunch Program officially started in 1946, it wasn’t until the 1960s that it really became a national success and spread throughout The United States. Yes, establishing the Program did mean all state schools were responsible for serving food at lunch time, but it by no means further defined what this meant. In the early years of the program, “the menu always depended more heavily on surplus commodities than on children’s nutritional needs” (2) due to the fact that food was scarce to begin with as a result of The Great Depression. Not only that, but also schools were given foods that they simply could not use and it was said that “perishable foods rotted en route to schools or arrived unannounced at schools that could not refrigerate them,” (Levenstein, Harvey)  This not only wasted a lot of quality food, but also gave schools less food to serve to students and sometimes left them unable to have full meals. It was clear that it really was not about the nutrition for these young children, but rather what foods were able to be provided at that time. Getting healthy foods on children’s plates was not a concern at a time when getting food for them in general was.

While finding a balanced meal was a problem for students in the United States school district in general, it was extremely problematic, for lower income families due to the fact that they were relying on schools to feed them in place of the meals that they would miss at home because they were unaffordable and inaccessible. It is said that “the National School Lunch Program is the single most important source of nutrition for children from low income families” (2) because it, in theory, offered free meals to those that could not afford to eat otherwise. This is made clear by Levine when she marks, “without school lunches, many children in this country would go hungry; many more would be undernourished.” (2) But, the lack of funding for these free meals for poor children resulted in schools having no choice but to serve processed and fast foods which completely goes against any form of nutrition that these young children both needed and deserved. This puts a block on any potential for children to have a healthy cushion in the most important and developmental stages of their life making them unable to grow to their fullest potential. Overtime, nutritional reformers began to realize this as a really big issue through the statistics on childhood obesity as well as malnourishment in schools.

Not only were students in the earlier years not getting the nutrition they needed to monitor their growth, but it was also noted that some school lunch opponents view government involvement with lunches to be a threat to the children’s development of character and it was now a common fear that a “free school lunch program would destroy national morale.” (82) Communal feeding seemed new and dangerous for some students as well as the idea of government feeding program would result in socialistic views for children which made many uncomfortable. This further shows the unsuccessful rate of The School Lunch Program in its early years because of the controversy and issues it brought up.

By the 1950s, there were already extreme improvements with the help of the Department of Agriculture’s domestic agenda in addressing one of the leading concerns; children’s health. They were now more so looking to “improve the dietary habits of school children” (NYT) because the funds of the federal government increased. In doing so, this allowed the federal government to focus more on child nutrition and less on purchasing foods for the sake of farmers. There were rapid changes in The School Lunch Programs in their introduction to all sorts of commodities. In addition, “the government distributed close to two million pounds of food products, including dried beans, cheese, orange juice, and peanut butter, along with apples, pears, cranberries, beets, cabbage, butter, and honey,” (93) which clearly steps far away from the fast food products that were forced in in the earlier years. There were many aspects of noted improvement such as “a strong well-fed youth, a larger income for the farmer, a huge market for the food trades, jobs for the lunchroom personnel, employment for related industries, constructive outlets for abundant commodities, a well-nourished student who is more receptive to instruction, and a healthier Nation.” (93-94) While the improvements were tremendous there was a dark reality that laid below the surface of things that certainly track back to the original ways of The School Lunch Program.

While on the surface it seemed as though these improvements really came from people wanting “to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other foods” (NYT) , and it was certainly painted like that, which in part is very true, the reason it all finally came together is fairly separate from that. One big reason all these nutritious foods were placed into these lunchrooms was because they were surplus foods of the time. It was said that even “food industry groups- and their congressional representatives- were not shy about claiming their commodities to be “in surplus” if market places were low” (94) because of how merely obvious it was that this was happening before us. In short, The School Lunch Program increased because farmers and society in general were no longer struggling from the aftermath of The Great Depression. “With postwar industry zipping along, children were fed rich, protein-heavy dishes like cheese meatloaf, sausage shortcake, ham and bean scallop, and orange coconut custard with cottage cheese.”(Wells, Jeff) By the end of the 1950s, there was a rapid growth in supply of feed grains, wheat, corn, and other really prominent crops. “The total supply of feed grains for the 1958–59 season has been estimated at 246 million tons, 12 per cent more than in the preceding year. The corn supply of around 3.5 billion bushels is 9 per cent ahead of last year’s supply, and a corn carry-over of more than 1.8 billion bushels is in prospect.”(CQ Researcher) Having this significant growth at the tail end of the 1950s, allowed a very strong start from the school lunch program on entering the 1960s.

In the 1960s, foods that people in 1946 never thought would make it into school cafeteria’s were making their way across schools in America. A wide variety of nutritious options were now being served at schools and it was clear that the federal government was now not only looking to buy surplus foods but was also certainly keeping children’s nutrition in mind. Now, the federal government made enough money to guarantee free meals for children that needed them and made the lives of many low income families much easier. “peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and fish sticks with tartar sauce” as well as having a cold section alongside those hot foods where children could get salads and vegetables.

In 1966, Lyndon Johnson signed and passed the Child Nutrition Act. This act was stated by congress  “In recognition of the demonstrated relationship between food and good nutrition and the capacity of children to develop and learn, based on the years of cumulative successful experience under the National School Lunch Program with its significant contributions in the field of applied nutrition research, it is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress that these efforts shall be extended, expanded, and strengthened under the authority of the Secretary of Agriculture as a measure to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children, and 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.”(USDA) Figure 1 displays a typical school meal in the year 1966. As shown in the picture, it is obvious that having a wellbalanced meal was stressed at the time and very important. The meal displayed covers all important food groups and is a great meal for a growing child. This act made it clear that children’s nutritional needs were finally at the forefront of school lunch programs.

A Type A school lunch as specified by the Dept. of Agriculture, with a protein food, fruits, vegetables, bread and butter, and milk. Washington, D.C.: June 1, 1966.
(Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

This essay examined the evolution of The School Lunch Program from the year it began in 1946 to the late 1960s. The Program shifted in response to the funds that the federal government received. The less money the federal government had, the more they had to adjust to purchasing and distributing the excess crops of farmers, straying away from thinking about child nutrition. Alternatively, the more money the federal government had, the more able they were to provide nutritious and healthy foods for the children as well as being more capable of distributing free lunches for low income families. Through the statistics and analysis it is clear that in those twenty four years, The School Lunch Program got much better in many aspects.


Reference list:

Levine, Susan. “Levine, S.: School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program (Paperback and Ebook) | Princeton University Press.” Princeton University, The Trustees of Princeton University,

“Pupils Get Food in 60,000 Schools,”NYT, August 9, 1959.

P.L. 396 passed June 4, 1946. Gordon W. Gunderson, “The National School Lunch Program: Background and development,” Food and Nutrition Services, 63, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1971

Wells, Jeff. “What School Lunch Looked Like Each Decade for the Past Century.” Mental Floss, 12 Oct. 2016,

“Child Nutrition Act of 1966.” USDA,

“Farm Surpluses and Food Needs.” CQ Researcher by CQ Press, 4 Mar. 1959,

Levenstein, Harvey. The Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America. Oxford University Press, 1994.

Rude, Emelyn. “School Lunch in America: An Abbreviated History.” Time, Time, 19 Sept. 2016,