India’s school lunch program may be imperfect, but it deserves credit for feeding millions

Schoolchildren in Haryana, India eat rice and kadhi, a curry made with onions, garlic, yogurt and fritters made with chick pea flour.
Credit:Rhitu Chatterjee

One day earlier this summer, I visited a government school in a village called Dujana, in the state of Haryana.

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During the lunch break, little, skinny girls dressed in blue and white checkered kurtas (tunics) and navy blue shalwars (loose cotton pants) stepped out of their classrooms and headed straight toward a line of empty, dilapidated looking rooms at the far end of the school compound. There, in front of the rooms sat two women with a giant vat of steaming hot khichdi, a dish made of rice mixed, lentils and vegetables.

The girls lined up in front of the women with empty lunch boxes in hand. One by one, the two women doled out a ladle full of the freshly cooked khichdi to each girl. The girls returned to their classes to eat their free lunch.

This was my first time witnessing India’s mid-day meal program in action. I was touched by the sight. There’s something about the sight of emaciated children eating hot, freshly cooked food that they wouldn’t otherwise get that doesn’t allow you to be the detached, distant observer that we journalists often are.

But it wasn’t until I ventured deeper into the state of Haryana, into one of its hunger-stricken areas, that I really understood the program’s impact on children. As I describe in this story, in a village in the district of Bhiwani, most children go to school having eaten just a left over piece of bread and tea, or baasi roti aur chai, as mothers in the village would put it. Most families can’t afford vegetables or lentils or eggs.

As a journalist writing about health and development, I knew how widespread hunger and malnutrition still are in my country. But I’d never witnessed what that looks like for real people until I started reporting this series. And it was this project that helped me understand how a relatively simple idea of one freshly cooked meal a day benefits India’s millions of poor children.

Food rights activists and economists I spoke to while reporting this series, told me of places elsewhere in the country where children go to school on an empty stomach. The mid-day meal is their first meal of the day and their only regular source of vegetables and lentils, and in some states with better lunch menus, eggs.

“There are about seven-eight states that now give eggs in the school meal,” says Dipa Sinha, an economist and researcher at the Center for Equity Studies, a New Delhi based non-profit. She is also an activist for India’s Right to Food Campaign.

Sinha told me about one of her own visits to audit a government school in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh to see how well the school lunch program was working. The state had recently started offering eggs in their school lunches.

“There’s a box in the school where you can put in any complaints you have regarding the meal,” she says. “We opened it and one of the letters in that box was from a girl in class four and it was a Dalit girl, who said ‘thank you very much, I got to eat an egg in my life for the first time.’”

Now, remember India has the highest rate of child malnutrition in the world. According to The World Bank, rates of child malnutrition are five times higher than in China and two times higher than rates in Sub-Saharan Africa. And the undernourishment usually sets in pretty early, within the first three years of a child’s life. Whether the lunch program can alleviate the effects of early childhood malnutrition with just one free meal a day is poorly understood — although one recent study suggests it does.

But what is no longer debated today is that the mid-day meal program rescues children from dire hunger and improves their diets.

This isn’t to say that the school lunch program has no shortcomings. In fact, the program is riddled with problems, and how well the program works varies from state to state.

Every now and then one reads about incidents of food poisoning through the school meal. The worst of those cases occurred last year, in the state of Bihar, when 23 children died and more were hospitalized, after eating a lunch that was contaminated with pesticides. Another incident occurred just earlier this week in New Delhi, but thankfully the children are safe. The case is still under investigation.

What these incidents illustrate is a glaring lack of monitoring and accountability.

In the state of Tamil Nadu, which has the longest standing school lunch program, the state employs a “noon meal organizer,” for every three schools in a district. The organizer’s job is to make sure everything runs smoothly.

In other states, the job falls in the laps of already overburdened teachers who aren’t compensated for the extra work required to implement this program. As a result, there’s very little supervision and monitoring and no way to hold someone accountable when problems occur.

But as I wrap up my work on this series, I am left feeling an immense sense of awe. I’m in awe that in a country as vast and diverse as India, where everything is slowed down by red tape and corruption, the mid-day meal program has more or less succeeded in what it set out to do: improve child nutrition and increase school enrollment and attendance. After all, it is the world’s largest school lunch program and feeds 120 million of the country’s poorest children.

As economist Jean Dreze put it to me, “India gets too little credit for what it’s accomplished with this program.”

Rhitu Chatterjee’s Mid-Day Meal reports were produced with help from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

What is the national school lunch program?

The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day.

The Minnesota Department of Education’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) administers school and community nutrition programs for Minnesota children and adults through local schools, child and adult care facilities and summer food program sites. Participants receive nutritious meals and education to help them learn and practice healthy habits for a lifetime of wellness.

Free and Reduced-Price Meals
Schools that participate in School Nutrition Programs accept applications for free and reduced-price school meal benefits at any time. Approval is based on comparison of the household’s income to current U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) household income guidelines. Schools send an Application for Educational Benefits form to the households of all enrolled students at the beginning of each school year. A letter accompanies the form and explains school meal benefits and how to apply.

Summer Food Service
The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) helps local organizations operate programs combining nutritious meals and healthy activities for children during the summer months when school-year nutrition and activity programs are unavailable. In Minnesota, more than 100 sponsors operate more than 475 SFSP sites, serving 1.7 million meals per year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP) and After School Care Program. USDA provides cash reimbursement to public schools, private nonprofit schools and residential child care institutions for nutritious meals and snacks served to children in preschool through grade 12 at a minimal cost.

Families may apply for meals served free or at a reduced-price based on the income level of the household. Residential child care institutions and juvenile correctional facilities may serve meals to children and youth 20 years of age or younger. Reimbursement for snacks served to children in afterschool programs is based on the income level of the households living in the local area or the enrolled children.
Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Improving child nutrition is the focal point of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA). The legislation authorizes funding and sets policy for the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Summer Food Service Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Program. HHKFA upgrades the nutritional standards for school meals, increases the federal reimbursement rate for school lunches by six cents, increases access to school meals, provides more meals for at-risk children, and works toward improving the quality of foods supplied to schools. For resources on how schools can best meet the new regulations, see the related links at right.

Farm to School is a nationwide collaborative effort to connect school districts with local farmers for the purpose of serving healthy school meals while utilizing local fresh foods. Farm to School aims to meet the diverse needs of school nutrition programs in an efficient manner, to support regional and local farmers and thereby strengthen local food systems and to provide support for health and nutrition education. View more information and resources on Farm to School.

Meet the Challenge and Become a HealthierUS School. The HealthierUS School Challenge (HUSSC) recognizes schools that have taken a leadership role in helping students learn to make healthier eating and active lifestyle choices. HUSSC is a voluntary certification program for schools participating in the National School Lunch Program. Select the HealthierUS School Challenge link to learn more.

Nondiscrimination statement: In accordance with federal civil rights law and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) civil rights regulations and policies, the USDA, its agencies, offices, and employees, and institutions participating in or administering USDA programs are prohibited from discriminating based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, age, or reprisal or retaliation for prior civil rights activity in any program or activity conducted or funded by USDA.

Persons with disabilities who require alternative means of communication for program information (e.g. Braille, large print, audiotape, American Sign Language, etc.), should contact the agency (state or local) where they applied for benefits. Individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing or have speech disabilities may contact USDA through the Federal Relay Service at (800) 877-8339. Additionally, program information may be made available in languages other than English.
To file a program complaint of discrimination, complete the USDA Program Discrimination Complaint Form, (AD-3027) found online at: http://www.ascr.usda.gov/complaint_filing_cust.html, and at any USDA office, or write a letter addressed to USDA and provide in the letter all of the information requested in the form. To request a copy of the complaint form, call (866) 632-9992. Submit your completed form or letter to USDA by:
(1)   Mail:
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20250-9410;
(2)   Fax: (202) 690-7442; or
(3)   Email: program.intake@usda.gov.
This institution is an equal opportunity provider.
Managing Agency Minnesota

Program Description

The National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program help schools provide nutritious meals to students each school day. These are U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs that are administered by the Minnesota Department of Education. Participating schools receive Federal and state funds for meals that meet established nutrition standards.

General Program Requirements

You may qualify for this benefit program if you have child(ren) who attend a Minnesota school (high school or under) that participates in the National School Lunch Program / School Breakfast Program. Almost all public schools and many private schools participate in these programs.

Your Next Steps

The following information will lead you to the next steps to apply for this program.

Application Process

Schools send school meal applications home at the beginning of each school year. However, you may apply for school meals at any time throughout the school year by submitting a household application directly to your school. Your school will provide you with an application upon request.

Contact your state’s agency to participate.

Program Contact Information

For additional information, visit the School Nutrition Programs page on the Minnesota Department of Education website: http://education.state.mn.us/MDE/SchSup/FNS/SNP/index.html
If you have further questions contact the Minnesota Department of Education, Food and Nutrition Service at 651-582-8526, 1-800-366-8922 (Minnesota toll free), or email to: fns@state.mn.us

Background

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally funded meal program operating in learning institutions (public and nonprofit private schools), and other designated institutions (childcare, juvenile detention centers, board and lodging institutions, single family homes, etc).

Established and signed in 1946 by President Harry Truman, the NSLP’s purpose is to provide balanced low cost or free lunches to school children, each day. Institutions participating in NSLP are required by federal law, section (9) of US Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, to have two food inspections annually. As mandated by both state (Minnesota Food Code) and federal law, the Minnesota Department of Health and its Delegated Agencies (Local Public Health Authorities) conduct food inspections annually. They report and share inspection results with the Minnesota Department of Education. The annual report (number of food safety inspections) obtained by institutions and sites participating in the NSLP is then conveyed to the United States Department of Agriculture Secretary by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE).

For more information about the National School Lunch Program:

Minnesota School Food Inspections

Minnesota Department of Health – Environmental Health Services (MDH-EHS) and Delegated Agencies information about inspections for schools and sites participating in the National School Lunch Program. This information is comprised of tables and reports for schools and sites where food safety inspections were performed in school years 2010-2011.

collage representing school lunches

The National School Lunch Program – pros, cons, and how to get your kids eating healthier

The National School Lunch Program – pros, cons, and how to get your kids eating healthier Thursday, July 16, 2015 by: Kristina Martin

The National School Lunch Program's supplies meals for over 21 million low-income, food insecure children around the country. For many, it is the only meal they will eat all day, so the USDA created specific guidelines to ensure these students are receiving the most nutritious meal possible.

New Standards for School Lunches

The latest federal program concerning standards for school meals is the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. In its original form, the law authorized the funds to extend current child nutrition programs and free lunch programs for 5 years; updated the nutritional standards to include more whole grains, fruits, veggies, and lean protein; and gave the USDA authority over schools’ nutritional standards and regulations.

Plenty of criticism has been leveled at the one-size fits all nature of the law as well as the ability of the government to dictate lunch options. The School Nutrition Association, a corporate sponsored group, has been the most vocal opponent of the act, saying that districts are unable to meet the guidelines and that students are throwing the healthier food away. Despite these claims, a Food Resource and Action Center study found that the low-income students who are the focus of the National School Lunch Program are receiving more benefits from the new law, and the USDA reports that 95% of schools have been able to meet the program requirements.

It is possible to get students to eat healthier foods. Schools who have successfully implemented healthier options have done so by slowly introducing these items to students, introducing wheat bread one day and a new vegetable a few weeks later. If no one introduces today’s kids to whole grains, different fruits and veggies, and new foods, the odds of them trying anything new greatly diminishes as they grow older. If we roll back efforts to introduce kids to healthier foods, we will leave our next generation at a serious disadvantage.

Food Education

Yes, schools have a responsibility to feed their students a healthy lunch. In a perfect world, school lunches wouldn’t require students to drink low fat milk and to prioritize grains rather than promoting the lush nutrition and healing power of vegetables and fruits.

Food education is often ignored. We have found that many young students can’t even identify common vegetables. But education can make a big difference in the quality of food a child chooses and their willingness to try new foods. How many of the schools serving local food are telling the students what they are doing and what the benefits are? Teaching children how to cook fresh food and how to plant and tend a school garden lays a foundation of healthier attitudes toward food and nutrition. But why should our schools be the only ones introducing children to healthy foods and teaching them how to eat?

Learning about food and healthy eating starts at home. There are so many ways you can get your kids excited about eating fruits and veggies and teach them how to be lifelong healthy eaters and by extension enjoy a much better quality of life. The earlier you can introduce your little one to healthy foods, the better. But even if your children have already been introduced to some of our more unsavory food items, here are some tips you can use to turn Mr. Chicken Nuggets and Pizza Girl into kale fiends:

  • Let them cook with you. Even if something is ghastly, kids are much more likely to try it and like it if they are the ones who put in the work.
  • Smoothies are a great way to slowly introduce veggies to resistant kids. A great nutrition powder can be a great addition to those.
  • Turn your little one into a gardener. Gardening will get them outside, teach them patience and responsibility, and get them excited about what they’ve created.
  • Keep offering new foods. Maybe the cauliflower wasn’t successful last time, but that’s no reason not to try it again later.
  • Lastly, be the example! This is so important, because kids are naturally interested in what adults are doing. If your little one sees you snacking on and enjoying carrots and kale chips, they are that much more likely to have positive association and be willing to try them.

Here’s an ultra healthy smoothie that’s kid approved: http://www.organiclifestylemagazine.com. For more information on healthy eating, check out the first two sources below.

Sources:

http://www.organiclifestylemagazine.com

http://www.organiclifestylemagazine.com/issue/11-80-raw-food-diet/

http://www.thelunchtray.com

http://www.npr.org

http://frac.org

http://www.fns.usda.gov

http://www.fns.usda.gov

About the author:
Kristina works at Green Lifestyle Market. A few years ago Kristina was no stranger to illness, but she decided to pursue health and vitality through natural means when she became pregnant. She quickly learned that she could prevent morning sickness and other common ailments other pregnant woman experienced with the right diet. After a healthy home birth, and a beautiful child, she never looked back. Kristina has not had so much as a cold since, and at two years old and unvaccinated, neither has her child. She’s passionate about natural health, environmental conservation, and raising her healthy baby without pharmaceuticals.




Todd Rokita wants to restrict free school lunches

Maureen Groppe and Chelsea Schneider, IndyStar Washington Bureau

There’s a food fight going on in Washington D.C.Rep. Todd Rokita has proposed a bill that would restrict access to free and reduced school meals at public schools.Rokita is focused on changing a portion of the program that allows some schools to pro Nate Chute/IndyStar

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WASHINGTON — High-poverty schools would have a harder time qualifying for federal assistance to offer free meals schoolwide under a proposal by Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Indianapolis.

The bill, which a House committee will vote on Wednesday,  would raise the share of a school’s students who must be receiving other government aid in order for the school to be eligible to provide meals to all students. Those schools would still be able to provide free meals to students who qualify on an individual basis.

Rokita said the change would target assistance to those most in need, and the savings would be redirected to other nutrition programs for school-age children. The savings would amount to about $1 billion over 10 years.

“We stick it right back into their school,” he said. “I think that’s a pretty creative way to lead on this issue without adding to our $19 trillion in debt.”

The change would affect about 120 Indiana schools — including at least 14 in Marion County — that serve nearly 58,000 students who would no longer qualify for a schoolwide free meal program, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.

Indiana school officials using the program, known as community eligibility, said it has helped the families they serve.

“We know that there are more students that are eating, especially breakfast,” said Krista Stockman, spokeswoman for Fort Wayne Community Schools, which is feeding more than 21,000 students in schools that would have to go back to the old system under the proposed change. “It is a benefit that puts money directly back into families’ pockets.”

Sara Gasiorowski, director of child nutrition for Wayne Township Schools, with 11 schools participating in the program, said breakfast and lunch are important parts of the academic day for students.

If the program is rescinded, she said, “It would really, really be hard to go backward.”

Students qualify for free meals if their family income is less than 131 percent of the federal poverty level — about $31,800 for a family of four.

Students in families with incomes up to 185 percent of the poverty level receive meals at a reduced cost — no more than 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast.

Students can automatically qualify for a free or reduced-price meal if their family is already receiving certain other types of government assistance, such as food stamps. Otherwise, a student’s family has to show a school their income is low enough to be eligible.

When Congress reauthorized the school meal program in 2010, lawmakers allowed schools to offer free lunches to all students if at least 40 percent of their students automatically qualified for assistance.

Rokita wants to raise that threshold to 60 percent.

“Before you get reimbursed as a school for giving everyone lunch … let’s make sure a majority of them actually qualify for it,” he said.

Although a 40 percent threshold might sound low, it refers only to students who automatically qualify for subsidized meals, said Zoe Neuberger, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In schools that meet that bar, about two-thirds of the students would qualify if administrators checked household income levels.

Before the community eligibility program, about 70 percent of Fort Wayne Community Schools’ students qualified for free or reduced-price meals. But district officials think a number of other families were either close to meeting the requirements or chose not to fill out the paperwork to receive assistance.

Not having to process student applications or monitor eligibility status in the lunch line saves schools’ resources, advocates say. Per meal costs also can be cheaper through economies of scale by feeding more kids. And serving free meals to all students can remove the stigma some might feel by applying for a subsidy.

Still, not all schools that are eligible for the program use it. That could be because they won’t save enough money to offset the cost of feeding more kids, since the federal government doesn’t pick up the full cost of the meals for all participants. Or schools could still be monitoring the program, which has been available nationwide for just two years.

In Marion County, the schools now offering free lunch to all students are Vision Academy-Riverside, The Challenge Foundation Academy, Arlington in Indianapolis Public Schools and 11 Wayne Township schools, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Rokita said any extra paperwork required for schools going back to the old system would be offset with the flexibility his bill would give them on meeting the tougher nutrition standards set by the 2010 law.

About 60 percent of the more than 760,000 Indiana students who participate in a school lunch program receive a free or reduced-price meal, according to the most recent statistics available from the Food Research & Action Center.

Cynthia Hubert, president and CEO of Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana, said she’s concerned about any change that could make it harder for students to get fed at school.

“If the children can’t get it there,” she said, “the charitable and private sector can’t do enough to fill that gap.”

One in seven Hoosier households was “food insecure” in the three-year period 2012-14, meaning they had difficulty at some point providing enough food for all family members, according to the Agriculture Department.

Federal spending on child nutrition programs — the largest of which are the school meal programs — has more than doubled since 1990, even after adjusting for inflation. Reasons include population growth, higher reimbursement rates to schools and policy changes.

Spending could grow an additional 26 percent in 10 years because of expected increases in food prices and demographic changes, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated last fall.

The savings from the change Rokita proposes would be spent on improving the summer meals program and increasing schools’ reimbursement rate for the breakfast program.

“When you’re getting a great deal, and you don’t have to do any paperwork for it, yeah, there may be some hesitancy to change,” he said. “But I am leading with a solution that solves a lot of their other problems. I’m just not doing it by adding to the debt.”

Neuberger, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said it’s a “false choice to say you have to make it harder for low-income kids to get meals during the school year in order to make those improvements.”

“We can make investments in all of the programs,” she said.

Email Maureen Groppe at mgroppe@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mgroppe.




House bill would scale back number of free school meals

BY Mary Clare Jalonick, Associated Press




School lunch program could save $103 billion

Curt Ellis, CEO, FoodCorps

Last week, Congress passed a last-minute spending bill to keep the government’s lights on for the next three months, but they let the Child Nutrition Act expire. While the emergency funding bill covers school lunch, school breakfast and other critical nutrition programs for kids, our nation’s students need more than a stopgap approach. Because no matter how you look at it the numbers add up, the science is clear, and history tells us: an investment in our kids’ health is a wise and necessary one.

Let’s start with the math: One in three of our nation’s kids is overweight or obese, and as a country we spend $190 billion a year in medical costs to fight this epidemic. But these costs aren’t just incurred by health insurance companies; they’re a major burden on taxpayers. The biggest single driver of our national debt is health care spending through Medicare and Medicaid. Research has shown that spending would be much lower for these programs – 8.5 percent and 11.8 percent respectively or $103 billion in 2014 alone – were it not for obesity. This cost will only increase as our nation’s “obesity generation” grows up. In 2030, direct medical expenses attributed to diet-related disease will hit an annual cost of $66 billion per year, and the overall loss in economic productivity could be as much as $580 billion annually.

A file photo of a school cafeteria.

Baerbel Schmidt | Getty Images
A file photo of a school cafeteria.

What science tells us about the obesity epidemic is just as worrisome. The research paints an alarming portrait of obesity’s effects on a child’s health, happiness and human potential. In the near term, an obese child will have fewer friends, miss more days of school and score lower on tests. As she becomes an adult, she will be less likely to go to college, be out sick more at work and under perform in her career. Before her life is over, she can be expected to battle weight-related illnesses – heart disease, diabetes, cancer or all three – and to raise children who themselves face elevated risks of obesity, sending the spiral into another downward turn. Making matters worse,diet-related disease takes a disproportionate toll on low-income children and children of color, erecting another barrier in our nation’s fight for equity and opportunity.

Thankfully, recent history demonstrates how we can begin to address the problem. The 2010 version of the Child Nutrition Act, known as the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, was a bipartisan and particularly health-supporting version of the every-five-years bill that funds our nation’s school meal programs. It set high standards for school meals around whole grains, fruits, vegetables and proteins, an essential step toward treating our nation’s epidemic of diet-related disease for the 31 million children who eat school food. Implementation of these ambitious standards has been challenging, but in districts where they have been met with creativity, resourcefulness and hard work, students have embraced the healthier diet they are being offered. And it’s paying off: it appears the obesity epidemic is finally beginning to reverse.

The organization I co-founded, FoodCorps, launched alongside the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act five years ago. Through hands-on nutrition education in the classroom, gardening and cooking lessons in the schoolyard, and kid-led taste-tests and recipe development in the cafeteria, FoodCorps leaders have partnered with farmers, teachers,parents and food service teams to help some 500 schools become healthier places for kids to eat, learn and grow.

The combination of garden-based education and improved school meals is rooted in a research-backed approach to connecting children to healthy food, known as “farm-to-school.” In addition to raising school meal standards across the board, the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act also supported farm-to-school grant funding at $5 million a year. Now, with research showing that the farm-to-school approach works and the demand for the program five times greater than Congress originally earmarked, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators and Representatives has stepped up with a call to increase the program’s funding to at least $15 million annually in this year’s Child Nutrition Act.

When Congress debates the upcoming Child Nutrition Act, they will decide what our children eat in school for the next five years. Congress’ role as our nation’s Lunch Lady must be taken seriously. With this vote, our legislators have an opportunity to stand firm and protect the high standards for fruits, vegetables, grains and protein that have made school lunches healthier, and to scale up the funding for farm-to-school initiatives that have gotten millions of kids excited to eat healthy food.

In passing a bipartisan bill that takes another step forward in the fight for healthy kids, Congress has a chance to give voters just what they want; a recent poll by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation showed that 86 percent of Americans want school nutrition standards to be strengthened or maintained, and 88 percent support increased funding for farm-to-school programs. Congress also has a chance to show that they’ve done their homework and learned a fundamental lesson: healthy food is a building block for health, opportunity and human potential––and every child deserves it.

Curt Ellis is the co-founder and CEO of FoodCorps, a nationwide team of AmeriCorps leaders who connect kids to healthy food in school.

What Are the Benefits of Healthy School Lunches?

| By Michelle Fisk

What Are the Benefits of Healthy School Lunches?
A nutritious lunch keeps your child healthy and gives her energy to do well in school. Photo Credit KatarzynaBialasiewicz/iStock/Getty Images

As part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act established in 2010, the National School Lunch Program’s policies were revised to better guarantee that children receive a nutritionally sound lunch. The changes ensure that schools offer fruits and vegetables, whole-grain foods, low-fat dairy products and limit calories, saturated fat and sodium. As a parent, you can follow these same guidelines if you pack your child’s lunch. A healthy school lunch provides sound nutrition to establish a lifetime of healthy habits and the energy your child needs for the rest of her busy day.

Provides Key Nutrients

It’s vital your child eats a healthy lunch, because lunch provides one-third of his daily calories. You want to make those calories count by offering nutrient-dense foods. Children who eat a healthy lunch have a higher nutrient intake not only for lunch but also for the entire day — compared to children who don’t — according to the website, Fuel Up to Play 60. If your child’s school gets federally reimbursed for school lunches, rest assured that his lunch is providing him with one-third of his daily needs for protein, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium, which are critical nutrients often lacking from a child’s diet.

Limits Fat Intake

The American Heart Association recommends children get no more than 25 to 35 percent of their calories from fat, with most fat coming from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Think nuts, fish and vegetable oils as opposed to pizza, cake and cookies. This is enough to support normal growth and development, and to meet your child’s energy needs while supporting sound heart health — for now and the future. A healthy school lunch limits fat to less than 30 percent and saturated fat to less than 10 percent of overall calories over the course of a week.

Prevents Obesity

Dr. Dan Taber, an investigator for the research program, Bridging the Gap, told the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that providing children with healthy foods at school is a key step in decreasing childhood obesity rates. School menus or foods from home that are high in saturated fat can lead to obesity and associated health conditions, which include diabetes and high blood pressure. Healthy options, such as high-fiber foods, whole-grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and low-fat dairy products, will fill up your child and keep him full longer. This can prevent unwanted weight gain and chronic health conditions.

Boosts Energy and Grades

When children don’t eat a healthy lunch, it’s harder for them to concentrate at school and to muster the energy for after school activities. They’re also more likely to reach for unhealthy snacks later in the afternoon. By offering a healthy school lunch, your child will get the energy he needs to power through the afternoon. A study published in 2008 in the “Journal of School Health” examined the eating habits of nearly 5,000 school children. Children who ate more fruits, vegetables and protein and fewer calories from fat, performed better on literacy tests compared to children with a high-fat, high-salt diet.

 

Office for Food and Nutrition Programs National School Lunch Program – Question Answers

  1. What is the National School Lunch Program? The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally assisted meal program operating in nearly 95,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 26 million children each school day. Established under the National School Lunch Act, signed by President Harry Truman in 1946, the program celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1996.The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through its Food and Nutrition Service (formerly the Food and Consumer Service), administers the program at the Federal level. At the State level, the NSLP is usually administered by State education agencies, which operate the program through agreements with local school districts. School districts and independent schools that choose to take part in the lunch program receive cash reimbursement and donated commodity assistance from USDA for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet Federal nutrition requirements, and they must offer free and reduced-price lunches to eligible children.

    In 1994, FNS launched the School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children to teach children the importance of making healthy food choices, and to support school food service professionals in delivering healthy school meals. Supported by legislation passed in 1994 and 1996, the initiative updated nutrition standards so that all school meals meet the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. New regulations implementing the initiative became final in June, 1995, and took effect at the beginning of school year 1996-97.

  2. What is Community Eligibility Provisions for Universal Free Meals?Eligible schools are able to streamline and improve school nutrition programs providing universal breakfast and lunch to all students through this provision.
  3. What are the nutritional requirements for the school lunch?School lunches must meet Federal nutrition requirements, but decisions about what specific foods to serve and how they are prepared are made by local school food authorities.Current regulations require schools to meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend that no more than 30 percent of an individual’s calories come from fat, and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. Regulations also establish a standard for school meals to provide one-third of the Recommended Daily Allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories.

    Schools have the option to choose one of four systems for their menu planning: Nutrient Standard Menu Planning, Assisted Nutrient Standard Menu Planning, the traditional meal pattern, and the enhanced meal pattern. Both Nutrient Standard and Assisted Nutrient Standard Menu Planning systems base their planning on a computerized nutritional analysis of the week’s menu. The traditional and enhanced meal pattern options base their menu planning on minimum component quantities of meat or meat alternate; vegetables and fruits; grains and breads; and milk.

    USDA has made a commitment to improve the nutritional quality of all school meals. The Department works with state and local school food authorities through the Nutrition Education and Training Program and Team Nutrition initiative to teach and motivate children to make healthy food choices, and to provide school food service staff with training and technical support.

  4. How does the National School Lunch Program work?Schools in the lunch program get cash subsidies and donated commodities from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet Federal requirements, and they must offer free or reduced-price lunches to eligible children.
  5. How do children qualify for free and reduced-price meals?Any child at a participating school may purchase a meal through the National School Lunch Program. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level (currently $21,710 for a family of four) are eligible for free meals. Those between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level (currently $30,895 for a family of four) are eligible for reduced-price meals, for which students can be charged no more than 40 cents.Children from families with incomes over 185 percent of poverty pay a full price, though their meals are still subsidized to some extent. Local school food authorities set their own prices for full-price meals.
  6. How many schools take part in the school lunch program?Nearly 95,000 schools and residential child care institutions participate in the National School Lunch Program. Public schools or non-profit private schools of high school grade or under, and residential child care institutions are eligible.The program is available in almost 99 percent of all public schools, and in many private schools as well. About 92 percent of all students nationwide have access to meals through the NSLP. On a typical day, about 58 percent of the school children to whom the lunch program is available participate.
  7. How much reimbursement do schools get?Most of the support USDA provides to schools in the National School Lunch Program comes in the form of a cash reimbursement for each meal served.Please check our Financial Management Page for current rates.
  8. What other support do schools get from USDA?In addition to cash reimbursements, schools are entitled by law to receive commodity foods, called “entitlement” foods, at a value of 15 cents for each meal served. Schools can also get bonus” commodities as they are available from surplus stocks. Under the School Meals Initiative, USDA also provides schools with technical training and assistance to help school food service staffs prepare healthy meals, and with nutrition education to help children understand the link between diet and health.Higher reimbursement rates are in effect for Alaska and Hawaii, and for some schools in special circumstances.
  9. What types of foods do schools get from USDA? States select entitlement foods for their schools from a list of more than 60 different kinds of food purchased by USDA and offered through the school lunch program. The list includes fresh, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables; meats; fruit juices; vegetable shortening; peanut products; vegetable oil; and flour and other grain products.Bonus foods are offered only as they become available through agricultural surplus. The variety of both entitlement and bonus commodities schools can get from USDA depends on quantities available and market prices.

    About 17 percent of the total dollar value of the food that goes on the table in school lunch programs is provided directly by USDA as commodities. Schools purchase the remaining 83 percent from their own vendors. As a part of its School Meals Initiative, USDA has placed special emphasis on improving the quality of commodities donated to the school lunch program, including a great increase in the amount and variety of fresh produce available to schools.

  10. What foods are schools required to serve in a school lunch? USDA does not require schools to serve — or not serve — any particular foods. School meals must meet Federal nutrition requirements, but decisions about what foods to serve and how they are prepared are made by local school food authorities.Until the School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children, the Federal nutritional requirements for school meals had not changed significantly since the school lunch program began in 1946. As part of the initiative, USDA published regulations to help schools bring their meals up to date to meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Dietary Guidelines recommend that no more than 30 percent of an individual’s calories come from fat, and no more than 10 percent from saturated fat.

    The new regulations require schools to have met the Dietary Guidelines by school year 1996-1997, unless they received a waiver to allow an extension for up to two years. They also establish a standard for school meals to provide one-third of the Recommended Daily Allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories. Schools’ compliance with both the Dietary Guidelines and the RDA’s is measured over a week’s menu cycle.

    Schools have the option to choose one of five systems for their menu planning: NuMenus, Assisted NuMenus, traditional meal pattern, enhanced meal pattern, and other “reasonable approaches.” Both the NuMenus and Assisted NuMenus systems base their planning on a computerized nutritional analysis of the week’s menu. The traditional and enhanced meal pattern options base their menu planning on minimum component quantities of meat or meat alternate; vegetables and fruits; grains and breads; and milk. The fifth menu option allows schools to develop other “reasonable approaches” to meeting the Dietary Guidelines, using menu planning guidelines from USDA.

  11. How many children have been served over the years? The National School Lunch Act in 1946 created the modern school lunch program, though USDA had provided funds and food to schools for many years prior to that. In signing the 1946 act, President Harry S Truman said,

    “Nothing is more important in our national life than the welfare of our children, and proper nourishment comes first in attaining this welfare.”

    About 7.1 million children were participating in the National School Lunch Program by the end of its first year, 1946-47. By 1970, 22 million children were participating, and by 1980 the figure was nearly 27 million. In 1990, an average of 24 million children ate school lunch every day. In Fiscal Year 2011, more than 31.8 million children each day got their lunch through the National School Lunch Program. Since the modern program began, more than 224 billion lunches have been served.

    For more information please visit the National School Lunch Program website.

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MDE School Nutrition Programs Handout on Grains

National School Lunch Program

The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. The program was established under the National School Lunch Act, signed by President Harry Truman in 1946.

National School Lunch Program (NSLP)

NSLP Legislation

NSLP Regulations

NSLP Policies

Guidance and Resources

Offer Versus Serve (OVS) – Updated 2015-2016 Guidance Manual

Tools for SchoolsTools for Schools offers topic-specific policy and resource materials to assist schools in meeting the new nutrition standards. Refer to the latest regulations, find free nutrition education curricula, or get ideas for adding tasty, kid-friendly foods to enhance your school meals program.

  • Nutrition Education and Promotion
  • Recipes and Culinary Techniques for Schools
  • School Nutrition Improvement
  • Policy Guidance

Nutrition Standards for School Meals – The final rule, Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, updated the meal patterns and nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs to align them with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Improvements to the school meal programs, largely based on recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, are expected to enhance the diet and health of school children, and help decrease childhood obesity.

Certification of Compliance – The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act provides an additional 6-cents per lunch reimbursement to school districts that certified to be in compliance with the new meal patterns.

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National School Lunch Program (NSLP) Early Programs by States

By Gordon W. Gunderson

Early Programs in the United States

In spite of information available from the vast experience and progress made in most of the nations of Europe, school feeding in the United States underwent the same evolution as in Europe, beginning with sporadic food services undertaken by private societies and associations interested in child welfare and education. The Children’s Aid Society of New York initiated a program in 1853, serving meals to students attending the vocational school. However, it did not gain sufficient momentum to convince other organizations or municipalities to do likewise.

There can be no doubt that Poverty, a 1904 book by Robert Hunter, had a strong influence upon the U.S. effort to feed hungry, needy children in school.

Hunter was vitally concerned with hunger, particularly among the children in poor families. ” . . . but the poverty of any family is likely to be most serious at the very time when the children most need nurture, when they are most dependent, and when they are obtaining the only education which they are ever to receive. Guidance and supervision of the parents are impossible because they must work; the nurture is insufficient because there are too many hungry mouths to feed; learning is difficult because hungry stomachs and languid bodies and thin blood are not able to feed the brain. The lack of learning among so many poor children is certainly due, to an important extent, to this cause. There must be thousands -very likely sixty or seventy thousand children-in New York City alone who often arrive at school hungry and unfitted to do well the work required. It is utter folly, from the point of view of learning, to have a compulsory school law which compels children, in that weak physical and mental state which results from poverty, to drag themselves to school and to sit at their desks, day in and day out, for several years, learning little or nothing. If it is a matter of principle in democratic America that every child shall be given a certain amount of instruction, let us render it possible for them to receive it, as monarchial countries have done, by making full and adequate provision for the physical needs of the children who come from the homes of poverty.”

Philadelphia

Toward the turn of the century significant efforts at school feeding were evidenced almost simultaneously in Philadelphia and Boston.

In Philadelphia, the Starr Center Association began serving penny lunches in one school in 1894, later expanding the service to another. Soon a lunch committee was established within the Home and School League, and lunches were extended to include nine schools in the city.

Dr. Cheesman A. Herrick, who was principal of the William Penn High School for Girls when it first opened in 1909, is credited with accomplishing the transfer of responsibilities for operation and support of the lunch program from charitable organizations to the Philadelphia School Board. He requested that a system be established to assure that the lunches served would be based upon sound principles of nutrition and required that the program be under the direction of a home economics graduate. The Board granted his request on an experimental basis and on the condition that the program would be self-supporting. The experiment proved successful, and the following year lunch services were extended to the Southern Manual Training School and later to three additional units.

In the spring of 1912, the School Board established a Department of High School Lunches and- directed that the food services be inaugurated in all the high schools of the city. During all this time the Home and School League had continued operating the feeding program in the nine elementary schools, and continued to do so until May of 1915, when it reported to the Board that the need for a lunch system had been clearly demonstrated and that it could not be successfully operated by an organization outside the school system. As a result, the School Board placed the operation of both high school and elementary lunch programs under the supervision of the Department of High School Lunches and authorized the extension of the program to other elementary schools. Under the Herrick plan, light, heat, cooking gas and the original equipment were supplied by the Board. Otherwise, the program was to be self-supporting.  12

Boston

Early programs in Boston were inaugurated under the auspices of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union. According to a report of the Union’s activities in 1908, the organization had begun serving hot lunches in September of that year to high schools which were under the supervision of the Boston School Committee. A central kitchen system was used and lunches were transported to the participating schools. There was a school lunch advisory committee which set the policy for the program and actual administration of the program was in the hands of a lunchroom superintendent and a director of school lunches.  13

An experimental program for elementary schools was begun in January 1910, taking the form of a mid-morning lunch prepared by the class in Home Economics three days each week. On two days of each week sandwiches and milk were served. The children ate their meals at their desks, there being no lunchroom in the building.

Before the end of the school year (1909-1910) five additional schools were benefiting from the program, and a total of 2,000 pupils were being served each day, according to a report submitted by Ellen H. Richards in the “Journal of Home Economics” for December 1910. She stated further that “The teachers are unanimous in the belief that the luncheons are helping the children both physically and mentally. They are more attentive and interested in the lessons during the last hour of the morning and the result in their recitations gives the proof.”

Milwaukee

In 1904, the same year that Poverty was published, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, began its efforts at meeting the need when the Women’s School Alliance of Wisconsin began furnishing lunches to children in three centers located in areas where both parents were working and the greatest need was evident. The project was supported by donations from private individuals, churches, societies and clubs. The lunches were prepared in the homes of women who lived near the schools and were willing to cook and serve the meals. Improvement in attendance and scholarship was noted, and six additional centers were in operation by 1910.

The preparation and serving of the lunches had by that time been transferred to the school buildings and a matron was employed at each school. The price of the meal was one cent for children who could pay, and they were served all the soup and rolls they could eat. Those who could not pay received their lunches free. The Alliance recognized the need for establishing additional centers throughout the city, but it was unable to raise the necessary funds for their support. The county board was requested to assume support of the school feeding program, but the proposal failed, it being the contention of the board that such action-would encourage parents to be indolent and shift parental responsibilities to the municipality.  14

School Feeding Supported

In the year following the publication of Hunter’s Poverty, there appeared another, similar publication dealing with poverty and the plight of poverty-stricken families. This was John Spargo’s The Bitter Cry of the Children. Like Hunter, Spargo dwelt extensively upon the misfortunes of children and the effect of malnourishment upon their physical and mental well-being. He estimated, after very careful study, that “not less than 2,000,000 children of school age in the United States are the victims of poverty which denies them common necessities, particularly adequate nourishment…. Such children are in very many cases incapable of successful mental effort, and much of our national expenditure for education is in consequence an absolute waste.”  15

The introduction to The Bitter Cry of the Children was supplied by none other than Robert Hunter, the author of Poverty. In commenting upon Mr. Spargo’s publication, he states, “Few of us sufficiently realize the powerful effect upon life of adequate nutritious food. Few of us ever think of how much it is responsible for our physical and mental advancement or what a force it has been in forwarding our civilized life.” Mr. Spargo’s emphasis upon the importance and appropriateness of feeding the school child is borne out in the following quotations from his book: “To the contention that society, having assumed the responsibility of insisting that every child shall be educated, and providing the means of education, is necessarily bound to assume the responsibility of seeing that they are made fit to receive that education, so far as possible, there does not seem to be any convincing answer. It will be objected that for society to do this would mean the destruction of the responsibility of the parents. That is obviously true. But it is equally true of education itself, the responsibility for which society has assumed. Some individualists there are who contend that society is wrong in doing this, and their opposition to the proposal that it should undertake to provide the children with food is far more logical than that of those who believe that society should assume the responsibility of educating the child, but not that of equipping it with the necessary physical basis for that education.”

New York

Robert Hunter had estimated that there were sixty or seventy thousand school children in New York who were not capable of doing good school work because of malnourishment. As has been previously noted, the situation had no doubt been recognized by the Children’s Aid Society of New York as far back as 1853. In that year they began serving lunches to students at a vocational school. No significant programs in the public schools developed, however, until 1908 when Dr. William H. Maxwell, superintendent of schools, made a special plea in his report to the Board of Education. “Again I appeal to you, in the name of suffering childhood, to establish in each school facilities whereby the pupils may obtain simple wholesome food at cost price.”

A school lunch committee consisting of physicians and social workers was thereupon organized to find out whether a lunch might be self supporting at a 3-cent charge to students. Two schools were selected on a trial basis. Two years later the board authorized expansion of the program to other schools of the city and agreed that the board would pay the cost of equipment and gas and supply the necessary rooms. The cost of food and labor was to be met from the sale of lunches.

During this period height and weight measurements were generally used and recognized as standards in determining nutritional adequacies. Consequently such records were maintained for 143 children for three months in the New York school lunch experiment. Records were also maintained on 81 children who did not participate in the lunch program. It was found that the 143 children had gained 91 pounds 4 ounces, or an average of 10.2 ounces each, while the 81 children gained 17 pounds or an average of 3.4 ounces. In both groups some children had lost weight, but the proportion of those who had lost weight was less among those eating the school lunches than among those who did not. This was considered as proof of the beneficial effects of one good planned meal each day at school.

Until January 1920, lunches in the elementary schools of New York had been supported by volunteer social organizations. In the 1919-20 school year, the Board of Education assumed full responsibility for all programs in Manhattan and the Bronx, and in the following year for all the programs.

Cleveland

Elementary school lunch service began in Cleveland, Ohio, on December 6,1909, when the Cleveland Federation of Women’s Clubs began serving breakfasts to 19 children at the Eagle School. One additional school was added in 1910, and by 1915 meals were being provided for all special classes in the grade schools, excepting the school for the deaf. In total about 710 children were being provided for each day.

School lunch services in Cleveland took on a unique aspect. The Board of Education furnished the equipment and provided the lunchrooms. However, “For crippled and open air children the Federation of Women’s Clubs provides food and at each school employs a woman to prepare it. For the blind, the Society for Promoting the Interests of the Blind takes charge. The committees, in consultation with principal, medical inspector, and supervisor of high school lunches, make out the different menus. The Board of Education contracts with these committees to furnish meals to exceptional children in specified schools at so much per child per day, according to the kind and number of meals supplied. 16

In some schools the meals were served at 10 a.m. and again at 2 p.m., and the children went home for their noon lunch. In other schools the lunches were served at noon. Apparently “open air” children received the two lunches each day, and the noon meal was supplied for the blind and crippled children who did not go home at noon.

The meal generally consisted of “bread and jam and a hot dish, such as beef stew, minced meat with potatoes, thick soup, or macaroni with tomato sauce. A few, on order from the medical inspector, get milk in the morning”.  17

In the summer of 1909, lunchrooms were installed in seven high schools in Cleveland. For 16 years prior to this, lunches had been provided by “lunch wagons” going to the schools or by stores in the vicinity serving hot meals at noon. In some schools the “basket lunches” were served on the school premises by caterers. Even after the installation of lunchrooms and equipment in the seven high schools, the operations in the schools were actually conducted by the former caterers under contract with the Board of Education on a concessionaire basis.

In the contract the Board of Education agreed to furnish all the necessary equipment, as well as heat, light, gas and water, sufficient for the proper maintenance of the lunchrooms, and to replace all equipment rendered useless through natural wear and tear.

In 1914-15 the normal school and all high schools except two were provided with lunch services. This involved a total of 6,715 students. All items served were priced a la carte and a typical “menu” offered a selection from about 15 items, including milk. “In some schools the range of choice is too great, in others too small. In all it is uneven. Vegetable soup is always vegetable soup and the price is 4 cents; but price is the only constant factor, for the materials used vary from school to school. That is, a nickel will buy more food, often of better quality, in one school than it will in another.”  18

Milk was furnished to all schools by one dairy selected by the lunchroom supervisor.

“All other supplies are chosen by the individual concessionaires, who are entirely responsible for the service. In a number of schools they prepare the food themselves, which increases their difficulties for they are frequently interrupted by trades people, by lunchroom helpers asking questions, by stray students who need attention, and by teachers on diet who want beef juice or an eggnog, or by other teachers who have a free hour and want a special meal. Lunch has to be prepared in between these demands and dishes are sometimes ready long before the regular lunch period.”  19

Naturally, concessionaires had no guaranteed, minimum income. During the 1914-15 school year, concessionaire’s profits ranged from $942 in one school to as little as $124 in another. The median for 10 schools was $605. The comments of a survey committee concerning the “Place of Lunch Service in the School System” is worthy of special note: “School lunches meet a natural need of all children. The purpose of the service is to teach children to choose wisely the food they buy. The conduct of school lunches is a business, an art, and a science…. The Superintendent of Lunches should have the same rank as the director of any other special division and be compensated accordingly. She should be subordinate to the educational department, for her work bears a direct relation to all health teaching in the schools and offers an opportunity to teach children the ethics and economies of spending, and various factors affecting the price of school meals and restaurant meals.”  20  In the summary of its findings and recommendations the survey committee states, among other things. “The school lunch division should reach all children; it should provide wholesome and nutritious food for them at cost, train them in sane habits of eating, and teach them to choose wisely what food they buy.”  21

Cincinnati

Almost simultaneously with the installation of lunchrooms in Cleveland. civic and social organizations were preparing for serving penny lunches in at least one school in Cincinnati. Here, again, the school board furnished the equipment, excepting that the very first equipment was paid for from private donations.

Five food items were served every day, two of which were hot foods. Each item was sold for a penny. The following are samples of menu offerings: “1. Hot meat sandwich; baked sweet potato; oranges; candy balls; graham crackers. 2. Hot wieners; rice pudding in cones; candy; bananas; cakes.” The salary of the cook was paid by the Council of Jewish Women. All other costs were met by lunchroom receipts.

St. Louis

In St. Louis, five schools in congested areas of the city were selected for an experiment in school lunch services in October 1911. High schools already had some form of lunch service, but it was decided to expand the services to elementary schools primarily for poorly nourished children and for those children who could not go home at noon. About 900 children were participating in the five centers. At the outset the food was prepared at the Central High School kitchen and transported to the elementary schools. This was found to be excessively costly, however, and after a month’s experience the preparation was transferred to each of the participating schools.

Originally the board purchased the food, but “It was decided, however, that it was illegal to spend public funds for the purchase of food and the board was obliged to abandon the work.”  22  Consequently, the programs were required to be self-supporting aside from the cost of equipment, which was paid by the board.

Chicago

According to the Department of Interior, Bureau of Education Bulletin No. 37, issued in 1921, “Chicago has the most intensive school lunch system in America.” At that time, all the city’s high schools and 60 elementary schools were carrying on school feeding programs as a full responsibility of the Chicago Board of Education. “Most of the high school children attend the lunchroom for part of their meal at least, and in the elementary schools approximately 31,000 children are served daily.”

The program had its beginning in 1910, when the Chicago Board of Education authorized the expenditure of $1,200 to begin an experimental program of serving hot lunches to children in six elementary schools.  23  By 1916, the number of elementary schools participating had grown to 28 and 31 high schools had joined the program.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles had entered upon a fairly substantial program by 1921. The Board of Education sponsored the program in nine high schools, eight intermediate, and 31 elementary schools. The participation in high schools ranged from 450 to 1,800 students per day per school, in the intermediate school 700 to 1,000 per school, and in the elementary system approximately 120 pupils per day per school. The programs in the high schools and intermediate schools were managed by student body associations or by a cafeteria director selected from the Home Economics Department. The elementary schools selected for participation in the program had a high percentage of students needing the noonday lunch because of defective nutrition. The undernourished children were fed at noon and in some cases were given a snack at 10 a.m. Lunches were sold at cost, but were given free to those unable to pay. The deficit in the elementary program was taken care of by the P.T.A. In the high schools and intermediate schools students unable to pay for their lunches were given work in the Home Economics Department or in other areas in the school to pay for their meals.

In a 1918 survey by the New York Bureau of Municipal Research, concerning school lunchroom services in 86 cities having over 50,000 population, it was found that only 25 percent of them provided lunch services in elementary schools, but that 76 percent had some form of lunch services in high schools. In high schools it was found that the noon lunch period was short and students came long distances to school. Some form of meal service was, therefore, considered essential. For the most part, elementary school children lived in the neighborhood of the school and could go home for their noonday meal. Improvement of nutrition was not a part of the consideration. Only five of the cities reporting lunchroom services in high schools indicated that the program had been instituted as a means of overcoming malnutrition among the students.

Rural Schools

Nationally, rural schools had a special problem in attempting to establish warm noonday lunches for their pupils. Almost without exception there was no room available for setting up a kitchen and dining area. Children came to school from long distances, and their lunches at noon consisted mainly of cold sandwiches, many of them of questionable nutritive value.

Efforts were made beginning in the early 1900’s to provide some means of warming certain foods brought from home or to prepare a hot food of some kind at school as a supplement to the foods brought from home. Public funds for such purposes were generally not available. But many ingenious teachers devised plans for preparing soups or similar hot dishes from meats and vegetables brought to school by pupils as a donation for the general use of all. Students took turns in helping to prepare the foods before the morning session began. Such dishes were cooked in a large kettle set on top of the stove which also heated the school room. In Wisconsin, an extensive program known as “the pint jar method” was used in heating foods brought from home. Students were encouraged to bring such items as soups, macaroni, cocoa, etc. in a pint jar. The pint jars were set into a bucket of water on top of the room heater or stove, and by lunch time such foods would be piping hot. Much stress was placed upon the importance of students receiving some hot food at school each day to supplement the cold sandwiches (sometimes frozen solid by the time the student reached school).

County home demonstration agents of the University Extension Service were extremely helpful to rural schools in devising plans for providing some supplementary hot foods and in drawing up lists of suggested “menus” in advance.

Parent-Teacher Associations became increasingly concerned and active in the school lunch movement, and supported activities through donations of funds and equipment. Pots, pans, cooking utensils, portable ovens, and domestic type ranges were often donated by the associations or even by individual families. Such assistance was invaluable in getting the program started in many rural and village schools.

In 1914 the Pinellas County (Florida) health officer, decided to experiment at the school to see what results would come out of a program which would provide each child with a half pint of milk a day. To get the program started a large white cow was placed on the playground with posters and other material to explain what was being attempted. Amid this setting the children were served their milk. The health officer was so impressed with the results that he suggested they serve a bowl of soup to the children with the milk.

A group of mothers and the principal planned and carried out the project serving the children a hot bowl of soup with crackers and one-half pint of milk. The meat and some of the potatoes were donated by the mothers. They also furnished the utensils, and the principal supplied the vegetables grown in the school garden.

Under these varied means of support -by philanthropic organizations, school-oriented associations, school district boards, and individuals-the school lunch program continued to expand, gaining momentum during the decade of the 1920’s. It was estimated that by 1981 there were 64,500 cafeterias in operation throughout the country in addition to perhaps 11,500 smaller units serving a single hot dish daily.

The depression years of the 1930’s deepened the concern over hunger and malnourishment among school children, and many States and municipalities adopted legislation, some of them including appropriations, to enable schools to serve noonday meal to their children. 24

Footnotes

12  Emma Smedley, The School Lunch: Its Organization and Management in Philadelphia, Smedley, 1920.
13  Marion Cronan, The School Lunch, Peoria, Illinois, Charles A. Bennett, Inc., 1962.
14  Mrs. Duane Mowry, Pennv Lunches in Milwaukee Schools, American City 4 (6), p. 283-288.
15  John Spargo. The Bitter Cry of the Children, Chicago, Quadrangle Books, 1906, p.117.
16  Alice C. Bouhton, Household Arts and School Lunches, Cleveland Education Survey 1915, pp. 121-122.
17  Ibid., P. 126.
18  Alice C. Boughton, Household Arts and School Lunches, Cleveland Education Survey 1915, pp. 145-146.
19  Ibid., p. 151.
20  Alice C. Boughton, Household Arts and School Lunches, Cleveland Education Survey l915, p. 162.
21  The findings and recommendation in the report contain no reference to provision of meals to children who were unable to pay.
22  Department of Interior, Bureau of Education Bulletin No 37, 1921, p. 24.
23  School Feeding in the United States, FDPB, P&MA, USDA, June 1947.
24  Howard L. Briggs, and Constance C. Hart, From basket Lunches to Cafeterias-A Story of Progress, Nation’s Schools, 8:51-5, 1931.