National School Lunch Program (NSLP)

School Nutrition a Remedy

Last Published: 04/28/2017

By Gordon W. Gunderson 

Nutrition, Behavior, and Learning

The school lunch program has continued to grow as an accepted part of the total educational program. Though it was considered by some administrators and teachers as a government program for "getting rid of surplus commodities" a decade or more ago, it has come to be recognized as a valuable tool in the learning process. Teachers, principals and administrators can tell the difference.

"Seventeen out of my 36 children are either not getting any lunch or an adequate one. I see definite personality changes when a child doesn't get lunch.”  49

"Since getting free lunch she has shown a marked improvement in attitude. Last year she was a major discipline problem.”  50

"Children that don't eat are very had to discipline.”  51

In January 28, 1971, a letter from a Green Bay, Wisconsin elementary principal states in part: "I believe this to be one of the finest programs initiated at the school for the following reasons: Attendance has improved by approximately 3/4-day per student. The majority of the children have shown a good increase in weight (some 10-12 pounds). Children are now receiving an on-going education in meal planning and nutrition, as well as invaluable experience in observation. The attitude of parents toward Federal programs has shown good growth because they are directly involved. This has also created a better home-school relationship."

In a New York City study of 50 malnourished children aged 2 to 9, it was found after improving their nutritional level over a one to three-and-one-half year period, that their IQs rose by an average of 18 points. No such change occurred in a well-nourished control group.  52

These are but a few of the typical testimonials stating in simple language the correlation between adequate nutrition and behavior and ability to learn in school.

The day-to-day observation of teachers and administrators of the relationship between inadequate nutrition and behavior and ability to learn is substantiated by scientific studies. Twenty Cape Town, South Africa, children were studied for 11 years, beginning in 1955. The study was based on the hypothesis "that the ill effects of under-nutrition are determined by (1) Its occurrence during the period of maximum growth and (2) the duration of under-nutrition relative to the total period of growth. . . Evidence is cumulative and impressive that severe under-nutrition during the first 2 years of life, when brain growth is most active, results in a permanent reduction of brain size and restricted intellectual development.”  53

In Chile, 14 infants were treated at a hospital for severe protein malnutrition. These children were discharged from the hospital after a long period of treatment, and thereafter followed up through visits to the outpatient department. They were given a special allotment of milk each month as a special food supplement, as were the other pre-school children in the families. At ages 3 to 6 years they were considered adequately nourished and their nutritional condition normal. In IQ tests (Binet) they averaged 62; none was above 76.

The results of the physical and psychological tests led researchers to conclude that brain damage in infancy is permanent at least up to the sixth year of life, despite improving nutritional condition. In his testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, Dr. Arnold Schaefer, Director of the National Nutrition Survey, stated, "The evidence points toward the fact that malnourished children are more difficult to teach and that they have a lower mental score. The risk of retarded neurological and mental development is such that it cannot be tolerated or ignored." Dr. Schaefer stated further, "When the children were in a boarding school and given the proper food, proper health care and proper education, the high prevalence of some of our biochemical findings disappeared. However, the key problem with preschool children who exhibit growth retardation is that it is doubtful whether they will catch up.”  54

Malnutrition a National Problem

It would be erroneous to conclude that only people who live at or below the poverty level suffer from malnutrition, and hence are susceptible to underdevelopment physically and mentally. According to the food consumption survey conducted by USDA's Agricultural Research Service in 1965, over one-third of the households with incomes of $10,000 or more did not have diets that met all recommended levels of all the nutrients to provide a good diet, and nine percent of the families in this income bracket actually had diets rated as "poor." As the family income declined, so did the diet rating. At an income level of $3,000 or less, 36 percent of the households had diets rated as "poor.”  55

Food likes and dislikes, food fads, ethnic backgrounds, habits, and income all influence the dietary patterns of rich and poor alike. It is therefore evident that to supply merely an abundance of food to combat malnutrition would be only a partial attack upon a complex problem. "It has long been known that if a food supplement is to be successful in nourishing a malnourished population, it must be acceptable to the people for whom it is intended. Changing food fads and habits even in malnourished populations is extremely difficult. Therefore, nutrition education is of the utmost importance to any nutrition program whether in the United States or in other countries.”  56

School Lunch Program a Remedy

The National School Lunch Program offers several approaches to solving the malnourishment problem:

  • The nutritive content of the meal (known as the "Type A") must meet at least a third of the child's nutritional requirements for the day, containing all of the elements essential to a balanced meal.

  • Through Federal, State and local support, the price of the meal is within the ability of most of the children to pay.

  • By Federal regulation, children who are unable to pay the full price of the meal must be provided a lunch free of charge or at a reduced price.

  • The menu pattern is devised to give extensive latitude to the local schools in planning the meals from day to day; yet the pattern will provide the full nutritional requirements when adhered to with a wide variety of foods to choose from.

  • Even though local food habits and patterns are observed in menu planning, the program provides an excellent opportunity for introducing foods which the children are not accustomed to eating at home and which will broaden their range of selection to help insure an adequate and balanced diet.

  • The day-to-day participation in the program develops good food habits which will carry on through adulthood and into the community.

  • Properly coordinated with classroom work, the lunchroom can be a laboratory for actual experience in the principles of nutrition, sanitation, safety, personal hygiene, food service management, courtesies and social graces, budgeting, accounting, food storage and handling, food preservation, delivery systems, and many other subjects of importance to society.


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49  Jean Fairfax, Chairman. Committee on School Lunch Participation, Their Daily Bread, Atlanta, Ga., McNelley-Rudd Printing Service, Inc., p. 19.
50  Ibid., p. 15.
51  Ibid., p. 17.
52  The School District of Philadelphia, Food for Thought, October 1, 1970.
53  Undernutrition During Infancy, and Subsequent Brain Growth and Intellectual Development from Malnutrition, Learning and Behavior. Edited by Nevin S. Scrimshaw and John E. Gordon, M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1968, pp. 279-287.
54  Hearings Before the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. U.S. Senate, Monday, April 27, 1970, pp. 784-786.
55  ARS 62-17. January 1968, Dietary Levels of Households in the United States, Spring 1966, U. S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, pp.. 8 and 9.
56  Delbert H. Dayton, Early Malnutrition and Human Development, Children, November-December 1969.