National School Lunch Act

Last Published: 02/24/2017

By Gordon W. Gunderson 

National School Lunch Act Approved

Nevertheless, the program was not expanding as rapidly as desirable. The year-to-year appropriations by the Congress without legislation assuring a continuation of program operations in years ahead, and the past experience of a drastic falling off in Federal support by means of donated foods, made-school boards hesitant to undertake the program.

Equipment installations, especially in the larger schools in cities and rural consolidated districts, were expensive. In the majority of school buildings there was no available room suitable to the installation of kitchen equipment, separate dining space was not available, and additions to or extensive remodeling of existing buildings would be necessary if the program were to be inaugurated. Without some guarantee as to a future, this was regarded as a high risk investment, and hampered program growth.

The 79th Congress (1946) recognized the need. Legislation was introduced to give the program a permanent status and to authorize the necessary appropriations for it.  26  Following hearings on the proposed legislation, the House Committee on Agriculture Report stated, in part: "The need for a permanent legislative basis for a school lunch program, rather than operating it on a year-to-year basis, or one dependent solely on agricultural surpluses that for a child may be nutritionally unbalanced or nutritionally unattractive, has now become apparent. The expansion of the program has been hampered by lack of basic legislation. If there is an assurance of continuity over a period of years, the encouragement of State contribution and participation in the school lunch program will be of great advantage in expanding the program.

"The national school lunch bill provides basic, comprehensive legislation for aid, in general, to the States in the operation of school lunch programs as permanent and- integral parts of their school systems.... Such aid, heretofore extended by Congress through the Department of Agriculture has, for the past 10 years, proven for exceptional benefit to the children, schools, and agriculture of the country a a whole, but the necessity for now coordinating the work throughout the Nation, and especially to encourage and increase the financial participation and active control by the several States makes it desirable that permanent enabling legislation take the place of the present temporary legislative structure.... The educational features of a properly chosen diet served at school should not be under-emphasized. Not only is the child taught what a good diet consists of, but his parents and family likewise are indirectly instructed."  27

The legislation was identified as the "National School Lunch Act," and Section 2 of the Act defines its purposes: "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, by assisting the States, through grants-in aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of food and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation and expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs.”  28

The Act spelled out very clearly just how the funds should be apportioned among the States. Exclusive of any amount which might be appropriated from year to year for nonfood assistance (equipment purchases), the Secretary was required to pay out to the States not less than 75 percent of the amount appropriated to be used by the schools for food purchases. The funds allotted to Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands could not exceed 3 percent of the total appropriation for food purchases. The apportionment to States was based on two factors: "The number of school children between the ages of 5 and 17, inclusive, in the State, and the need for assistance in the State as indicated by the relation of the per capita income in the United States to the per capita income of the State." This meant that the States with the lower per capita income would receive a greater proportion of the Federal funds than States whose per capita income was equal to or greater than the per capita income of the United States.

Section 5 provided that $10 million of the total appropriation each year should be apportioned among the States to assist school districts in purchasing equipment for the program. These funds were to be apportioned among the States on the same basis as the funds for food purchases.  29

Section 6 gave the Secretary authority to use up to 8.5 percent of the appropriation for administrative expenses. This section provided also that any funds remaining after the apportionment of funds to the states and territories for food and equipment purchases and for administrative expenses could be used by the Secretary for direct purchases of food to be distributed among the schools participating in the lunch program "in accordance with the needs as determined by the local school authorities." Section 7 called for a matching of Federal funds paid to the States as follows:

  • Fiscal years 1947 to 1950 -$1.00 for each Federal $1.00
  • Fiscal years 1951 to 1955 -$1.50 for each Federal $1.00
  • Fiscal year 1956 and thereafter -$3.00 for each Federal $1.00

In States where the per capita income was less than the per capita income of the United States, the matching requirement was reduced by the percentage by which the State per capita income was less than that of the United States.

In meeting the matching requirement, the payment for lunches by children, moneys paid out by school boards, and the reasonable value of foods, equipment, labor and other donations to the program could be regarded as matching funds. However, "the cost or value of land, of the acquisition, construction, or alteration of buildings, of commodities donated by the Secretary, or of Federal contributions" could not be considered as matching funds. States were required to enter into written agreements with the Secretary concerning the receipt and disbursement of Federal funds and foods received in support of the lunch program, and for the supervision of the program in all schools to assure compliance with the provisions of the Act and regulations and directives issued by the Secretary concerning program operations.

Likewise, schools participating in the program were required to execute agreements with the State educational agency. These agreements provided principally that the sponsoring agency for the school would:

  1. Serve lunches meeting the minimum nutritional requirements prescribed by the Secretary.
  2. Serve meals without cost or at reduced cost to children who were determined by local school authorities to be unable to pay the full cost of the lunch, and not to segregate or discriminate against such children in anyway.
  3. Operate the program on a non-profit basis.
  4. Utilize as far as practicable the commodities declared by the Secretary to be in abundance and to utilize commodities donated by the Secretary.
  5. Maintain proper records of all receipts and expenditures and submit reports to the State agency as required.

In States where the State educational agency could not administer the program in private and parochial schools, a proportionate amount of the State's share of fund was withheld from the allocation to the State agency for disbursement to the private and parochial schools by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Department also supervised the operation of the programs in these schools and continues to do so where the situation requires.

Section 9 of the Act provided that "Lunches served by schools participating in the school lunch program under this Act shall meet minimum nutritional requirements prescribed by the Secretary on the basis of tested nutritional research." The Secretary prescribed three types of lunches which would be acceptable, designed as Type A, Type B, and Type C. The Type C lunch consisted of 1/2 pint of whole milk served as a beverage. The milk would have to meet the minimum standards of the State and local laws and ordinances concerning butterfat content and sanitation requirements. The minimum nutritional requirements of the Type A and Type B lunches were as follows:

                       Type A     Type B
Milk, whole     ½ pint     ½ pint
Protein-rich food consisting of any of the following or a combination thereof:            
  •    Fresh or processed meat, poultry meat,cheese, cooked or canned fish
    2 oz     1 oz
  •    Dry peas or beans or soy beans, cooked
    ½ cup     ¼ cup
  •    Peanut Butter
    4 Tbsp.     2 Tbsp.
  •    Eggs
    1     1/2
Raw, cooked, or canned vegetables or fruits, or both     ¾ cup     ½ cup
Bread, muffins or hot bread made of whole grain cereal or enriched flour     1 portion     1 portion
Butter or fortified  margarine     2 tsp.     1 tsp.

Type A lunch was designed to meet one-third to one-half of the minimum daily nutritional requirements of a child 10 to 12 years of age. By making some adjustments, this meal pattern could be adapted to meet the nutritional requirements for children of all ages.

The Type B pattern was devised to provide a supplementary lunch in schools where adequate facilities for the preparation of a Type A lunch could not be provided.

Schools were reimbursed for a part of the cost of food purchased and used in the preparation of the noon lunches. This was accomplished through a plan of monthly payment to schools at a certain rate (cents) per meal for the number of meals served which had met the nutritional requirements. The maximum reimbursements allowable, established by the Secretary, were: Type A, 9 cents; Type B, 6 cents; Type C, 2 cents. Reimbursement rates for lunches served without milk were reduced by 2 cents, but this was permitted only if an adequate supply of milk meeting State and local standards as to butterfat and sanitation was not available; otherwise, meals without milk were not reimbursable. Total reimbursement to any school could not exceed the total amount spent for food.

Additional Commodities Authorized

Further assistance to the program by way of Federal commodity donations was brought about under the provisions of Section 416 of the Agricultural Act of 1949. Authority was granted to the Commodity Credit Corporation to donate commodities acquired by it under its price support activities to various agencies according to certain priorities: "First, to school lunch programs; and to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Federal, State and local public welfare organizations for the assistance of needy Indians and other needy persons; second, to private welfare organizations for the assistance of needy persons within the United States; third, to private welfare organizations for the assistance of needy persons outside the United States.”  30  These donations were in addition to those which might become available through the provisions of Section 32 of the Agricultural Act of 1935.

National School Lunch Act Amended

The first amendment to the National School Lunch Act occurred in 1952. It changed the formula concerning the apportionment of school lunch funds to Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands both as to food and non-food assistance funds. The same amendment also provided that in the first apportionment of funds following the enactment of the amendment, the amounts received by Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands should "not be less than that amount which will result in an allotment per child of school age in the State . . . having the lowest per capita income among the States participating in such first apportionment.” 31

Special Food Assistance to Needy Schools

Although the formula for apportionment of school lunch funds among the States and Territories, as stated in the Act, was designed to allocate a greater proportionate share to low income States, the expansion of the program to reach the large proportion of needy children who were entitled to free or reduced-price lunches became a very real burden upon the local districts which were the least able to pay. The situation was further complicated by lack of facilities and space for meal preparation particularly in the smaller schools in rural areas and older schools in large cities.

An experimental program was undertaken whereby special foods would be purchased for distribution to needy schools. The Congress appropriated $10 million for fiscal year 1962 to be used for direct commodity procurement by the Secretary of Agriculture. Of this amount $2.5 million was authorized to be used for commodity procurement and distribution "to provide special assistance to needy schools which because of poor local economic conditions (1)have not been operating a school lunch program or (2) have been serving free or at substantially reduced prices at least 20 percent of the lunches to the children."  32  By the end of the 1961-62 school year the special commodity assistance program was operating in 270 especially needy schools in 22 States, serving lunches to approximately 25,000 children. This form of special assistance was not continued beyond the 1961-62 school year.

1962 Amendments

In October of 1962 the Congress enacted some very significant amendments to the National School Lunch Act. Inequities in the apportionment of funds among the States had become evident as the program expanded. For example: State X having the same number of school children and same per capita income as State Y would receive the same amount of funds. But, if State X had a school lunch participation twice as great as State Y, it is obvious that the actual per pupil assistance in State X would be on the average only one-half the assistance which could be granted by State Y.

In correcting this situation, Section 4 of the Act was amended to provide that funds would be apportioned on the basis of (1) the participation rate for the State and (2) the assistance need rate for the State.

The "participation rate" for a State meant the number equal to the number of lunches served in the preceding fiscal year by schools participating in the program under the terms of the Act. The "assistance need rate" was redefined. For any State having an average per capita income equal to or greater than the average annual per capita income for all the States, the "assistance need rate" would be five. In any State where the average annual per capita income was less than the average for all the States, the "assistance need rate" would be "the product of five and the quotient obtained by dividing the average annual per capita income for such State, except that such product may not exceed nine for any such State.”  33  The annual average per capita income was to be determined on the basis of such income for the three most recent years for which the data was available and certified to the Secretary of Agriculture by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Reducing the language in the formula to a "dollar-and-cents" interpretation, it would mean that if adequate funds were appropriated no State would receive an apportionment of funds less than an amount equal to 5 cents per lunch for the number of lunches served in the previous year and that States with a per capita income of less than the national average would receive proportionately more funds, but not more than the equivalent of 9 cents per meal for the number of meals served in the previous year.

Since the new formula for apportionment of funds among the States meant a sharper reduction in allotment in some States, Congress provided for a gradual transition in the application of the new formula over a period of three years. This gave States and local school districts affected an opportunity for making adjustments to compensate for the loss of Federal funds, if that were the case.

NOTE: In all subsequent legislation dealing with apportionment of Federal funds for school and non-school child feeding programs, there is a special provision for apportionment of funds to private and parochial schools. The details of the apportionment formula to be applied in each instance are lengthy and will be understood best by referring to the legislation designated in the applicable footnotes. Section 11 of the original School Lunch Act of 1946 (covering miscellaneous provisions and definitions) was re-designated as Section 12. New subsections were added, including the definitions for "participation rate" and "assistance need rate.”

In the new Section 11 of the Act, the Congress provided for special assistance in the form of cash reimbursement for meals served free or at substantially reduced prices to needy children. A detailed formula for apportionment of the funds among the States and territories was included. The selection of the schools for receiving the special reimbursement from Section 11 funds was to be based upon five factors:

  • The economic condition of the area from which the schools draw attendance.
  • The need for free or reduced-price lunches.
  • The percent of free or reduced-price lunches being served in such schools.
  • The price of the lunch in such schools as compared with the average price of lunches served in the State.
  • The need for additional assistance as evidenced by the financial position of the lunch program in such schools.

Despite the enabling legislation to appropriate special funds for providing lunches to needy children, no funds were actually appropriated for such purpose by the Congress until fiscal year 1966.

National School Lunch Week Established

An annual National School Lunch Week was established on October 9,1962, by a Joint Resolution of Congress. By such resolution "...the President is requested to issue annually a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to observe such week with appropriate ceremonies and activities.”  34  The seven day period designated begins on the second Sunday in October each year.

Authorization to Buy Dairy Products

An amendment to the Food and Agriculture Act of 1965 authorized the Secretary of Agriculture "to use funds of the Commodity Credit Corporation to purchase sufficient supplies of dairy products at market prices to meet the requirements of any programs for the schools (other than fluid milk in the case of schools). . . when there are insufficient stocks of dairy products in the hands of Commodity Credit Corporation available for these purposes.”  35


26  Public Law 396, 79th Congress, June 4, 1946, 60 Stat. 231.
27  House Committee on Agriculture Report P.L. 396-79th Congress, June 4, 1946. See Chronological Legislative History of Child Nutrition Programs, FNS, USDA.
28  P L. 396 -79th Congress, June 4, 1946, 60 Stat. 231.
29  After the initial appropriation for nonfood assistance for fiscal year 1947, there were no further appropriations for this purpose until 1966-67.
30  Public Law 439 -81st Congress, Oct. 31, l949, 63 Stat. 1058.
31  Public Law 518 July 12, 1952, 66 Stat. 591.
32  Public Law 87-112 July 26, 1961, 60 Stat. 230; 75 Stat. 231.
33  P.L. 87-823, Oct. 15, 1962, 76 Stat. 944.
34  P.L. 87-780, 87th Congress, Oct. 8, 1962, 76 Stat. 779.
35  P.L. 89-321, 89th Congress, Nov. 3 1965, 79 Stat. 1212.