National School Lunch Program (NSLP)

Public Concern, Action and Status

Last Published: 04/28/2017

By Gordon W. Gunderson 

Public Concern

The school lunch program had experienced a continuous expansion from the time it was given permanent status in 1946 until 1968, growing from 4.5 million children participating in 1946-47 to 18.9 million in 1967-68. During the same period, Federal support in cash payments climbed from about $60 million to over $160 million (including reimbursement for “milk only" lunches). The value of donated commodities increased from $8 million in 1946-47 to nearly $276 million in 1967-68. In 1967, about 12 percent of all lunches served (including "milk only" lunches) were provided free or at reduced price.

In 1967-68, the national enrollment in public and private schools was approximately 50.7 million, according to a survey of School Food Services in March 1968. About 36.8 million children, or 73 percent, were enrolled in schools participating in the National School Lunch Program with an actual average participation in the program of 18.9 million children, or about 37 percent of the national enrollment. At the time of the 1968 survey, free or reduced-price lunches were still being provided for about 12 percent of the number participating.

Reasons for non-participation in the program were numerous, but in low-income areas and large urban centers low participation was particularly evident. Many of the school buildings in these areas, as well as the small schools in rural areas, were built many years ago when there were no plans for operating a school lunch program, and the buildings did not lend themselves to remodeling for that purpose --neither were local funds available for it. Many of the elementary school buildings in urban centers were built with the idea that the children could and should go home for lunch ("neighborhood schools") and lunchroom facilities were not available. Many of these conditions hold true today.

Some school authorities still cling to the idea that a school lunch program must be self-supporting, and others feel that the school has no responsibility in this area. According to a junior high school principal, "We think this is the responsibility of parents and child. We do not check them to see if a student eats. As a whole, we are doing it as a service rather than a need."  42  A principal of a low-income elementary school said, "I don't believe in free lunches for welfare people . . . It is not a welfare or educational responsibility. It is the parents' responsibility.” 43  Another school principal said, "We have a specific allocation of free lunches. There are always more children to feed than the funds allow. We have a policy that no child goes hungry. If they can't get a lunch, then they get milk and crackers."  44

The net result is that the children in the neediest areas must go without an adequate noonday meal at school, or perhaps an inadequate meal at home, or none at all. Many high school students prefer to bring a bag lunch from home or eat snacks and beverages at a nearby stand or from a vending machine in the school. In some instances the portions served to high school students are not adjusted to meet their needs and they seek other sources of service where their tastes and appetites can be satisfied.

The predominating reason, however, appears to be inadequate funding at Federal, State and local levels with the end result that the children who cannot afford to pay are the losers.

The findings of the Committee on School Lunch Participation published in Their Daily Bread in April 1968, gives stark evidence of the general treatment of the free or reduced-price provision of the National School Lunch Act nationally. Contrary to a generally accepted belief that children participating in a school lunch program are provided lunches free or at reduced price, if unable to pay, the committee concluded after extensive national research that: "Of 60 million public elementary and secondary school children, only about million participate in the National School Lunch Program. Two out of three do not participate. Of 60-million school children, fewer than two million, just under 4 percent, are able to get a free or reduced price school lunch. Whether or not a child is eligible for a free lunch is determined not by any universally accepted formula, but by local decisions about administration and financing which may or may not have anything to do with the need of the individual child. And generally speaking, the greater the need of children from a poor neighborhood, the less the community is able to meet it.”  45

National Nutrition Status

Also in April 1968, the Citizens' Board of Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition in the United States publicly revealed the findings of its nation-wide study, in a paperback book, Hunger USA. The Board consisted of selected representation from medicine, law universities, foundations, social action groups, organized labor, and religion. "We have found concrete evidence of chronic hunger and malnutrition in every part of the United States where we have held hearings or conducted field trips," the Board reported, estimating that at least 10 million persons were suffering from hunger and malnutrition.  46  The Board also alleged that 280 counties in the United States were "hunger counties" and were in need of emergency assistance. 47

A CBS television documentary portraying case after case of extreme poverty and the need for free or reduced-price lunches by hungry children, particularly from families living on incomes at or below poverty level, was shown to television audiences in May, 1968. 

Action Demanded

There had been a growing public clamor for more funds and food for needy families and more free school lunches for needy children for quite some time, and the television documentary plus the publications, Their Daily Bread and Hunger USA, evoked demands for action. Public concern rose to an unprecedented height, and so did the concern and action by Congress and the President. Soon after the report of the Citizens' Board of Inquiry, the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs was created for further intensive study, in addition to the hearings conducted by committees of the House and Senate.

Action by the President

On May 6, 1969, the President sent a message to Congress outlining the problem facing the Nation and making recommendations for action by the Congress and governmental agencies to eliminate hunger and malnutrition and insure a healthful diet for all Americans. The President stated, "So accustomed are most of us to a full and balanced diet that, until recently, we have thought of hunger and malnutrition as problems only in far less fortunate counties.

"But in the past few years we have awakened to the distressing fact that despite our material abundance and agricultural wealth, many Americans suffer from malnutrition. Precise factual descriptions of its extent are not presently available, but there can be no doubt that hunger and malnutrition exist in America, and that some millions may be affected. For them, there must be sufficient food income first. But this alone would only begin to address the problem, for what matters finally is what people buy with the money they have. People must be educated in the choosing of proper foods. All of us, poor and non-poor alike, must be reminded that a proper diet is a basic determinant of good health."

The President went on to state further, "More is at stake here than the health and well-being of 16 million American citizens who will be aided by these programs and the current child food assistance programs. Something very like the honor of American democracy is at issue.... America has come to the aid of one starving people after another. But the moment is at hand to put an end to hunger in America itself for all time. I ask this of a Congress that has already splendidly demonstrated its own disposition to act. It is a moment to act with vigor; it is a moment to be recalled with pride."

At the President's direction, the Food and Nutrition Service was created as a new agency within the Department of Agriculture exclusively to administer Federal food programs, including the school lunch program, and other agencies involved were directed to coordinate their activities with those of the Department of Agriculture.

On December 2, 1969, the President reasserted the problem as he addressed the opening plenary session of the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health. He said, "Experts can argue --and they do-- and you will- about the magnitude of the problem; about how many are hungry, how many malnourished, and how severely they are malnourished. Precise statistical data remain elusive and often contradictory. However, Dr. Arnold Schaefer, the man in charge of the National Nutrition Survey, recently made this cautious but forceful observation: "We have been alerted by recent studies that our population who are malnutrition risks is beyond anticipated findings, and also that in some of our vulnerable population groups --preschool children, the aged, teen-agers, and the poor --malnutrition is indeed a serious medical problem.' We can argue its extent. But hunger exists. We can argue its severity, but malnutrition exists.... In a related matter, we already are greatly expanding our school lunch programs, with the target of reaching every needy school child with a free or reduced-cost lunch by the end of the current fiscal year."

Various panels of the White House Conference recommended expansion of the school lunch program to the extent that every schoolchild shall have the lunch available to him, and that every needy child shall be provided a lunch (and breakfast under certain circumstances) free or at reduced price when unable to pay the full price. 


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42  Jean Fairfax, Chairman. Committee on School Lunch Participation, Their Daily Bread, Atlanta, Ga., McNelley-Rudd Printing Service, Inc., p. 17.
43  Ibid., p.25
44  Ibid., p.18
45  Ibid., p. 25
46  Citizens’ Board of Inquiry, Hunger USA, Boston Beacon Press 1968, p. 16.
47  Ibid., pp. 38 and 95-96.