Despite conservatives' recoiling at food and nutrition standards set by the government, they have a long and important history.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent announcement that his administration plans to ban the sale of large size sugary drinks to combat the growing problem of obesity has once again brought the question of the government’s role in nutrition and public health to the forefront of the nation’s discourse. In a similar move earlier this year, the Obama administration announced that it was issuing new rules for the nation’s subsidized school meal program, which would add more fruit and green vegetables to school breakfasts and lunches, also as a means of combatting the growing problem of obesity among our nation’s youth.
Most Americans are highly supportive of these moves and regard the school meal program—formally the National School Lunch Program—with favor. But like so many of the social programs that we now take for granted, few Americans probably realize that its history and its relationship to concerns over the nourishment of the nation’s children is rooted in the New Deal.
Prior to the New Deal, at the beginning of the 20th century, it had become more and more obvious that millions of Americans were suffering from malnutrition. This fact was confirmed by the initiation of the military draft in World War I, where it was determined that a shocking number of young men across the country were ineligible for military service due to their poor physical condition. Equally important was the simultaneous realization that widespread malnutrition among the nation’s school children was having an enormous negative effect on the ability of millions of young people to achieve basic academic standards. Armed with this alarming information, an emerging class of experts trained in the science of nutrition began to argue that it was time to instigate programs aimed at alleviating this critical problem.
One of the suggested reforms was the initiation of a national school lunch program designed to help lessen the problem of hunger among the nation’s youth. The idea of serving hot lunches to hungry students in the nation’s public schools was in fact not new, as many progressive-minded reformers had been advocating for it for some time. One result of these early efforts was the establishment of privately funded school lunch programs in a number of American cities, including New York and Chicago, which by the early 1920s had been partially embraced by their local school boards. However, it would not be until the onset of the Great Depression and the subsequent arrival of the New Deal that we would see direct federal involvement in the issue.
Like many of the locally based public or private relief programs that were in place by the early 1930s, most establshed local and state school lunch programs found it impossible to continue in the face of the crisis that now confronted the nation. The devastating drop in local revenue due to the drastic downturn in the economy was one reason; a second was the inability of the millions of impoverished students to pay even the meager “at cost” fees that many districts charged in exchange for school lunches.
The economic collapse also meant that a good share of the nation’s farm production went begging for a market. Moreover, as surpluses of farm products continued to mount, their prices declined to a point where farm income provided only a meager subsistence. It soon became apparent that one way to tackle the growing problem of malnutrition among Depression-era young people was to link it to agricultural aid through the school lunch program. In 1935, therefore, under the auspices of an Amendment to Agricultural Adjustment Act, Congress passed Public Law 320, which created the Commodity Donation Program. Under its terms, the Secretary of Agriculture was provided the funds and charged with the responsibility for removing “price-depressing surplus foods from the market through government purchase” and disposing of this surplus “through exports and domestic donations to consumers in such a way as not to interfere with normal sales."
Needy families and school lunch programs became constructive outlets for the commodities purchased by the Department of Agriculture under the terms of this legislation. And as the food used for school lunches would not otherwise be purchased in the marketplace, farmers benefitted by obtaining an outlet for their products at a reasonable price. The purchase and distribution of the food was assigned to the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation, which had been established in 1933 as the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation to distribute surplus dairy products, pork, and wheat to the needy. By March 1937, nearly 4,000 schools were receiving food and serving 342,031 children daily. Two years later, the number of schools participating had grown to just over 14,000 and the number of children being served had climbed to 892,259.
As was the case with many New Deal programs, the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation employed special representatives in each state to work with state and local school authorities, parent teacher associations, and similar organizations in an effort to expand the school lunch program. These efforts were enormously successful, and by 1942 the number of schools participating increased by over 75,000 and the number of pupils participating exceeded 6 million.
As a further benefit to the economy, many of the individuals involved in preparing and distributing the school lunches were employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The Community Service Division of the WPA employed thousands of needy women in nearly every city, town, and rural community of the country. The supervisory staff chosen to spearhead the effort to prepare and distribute the lunches was most often chosen from people who had special knowledge in the preparation of food. In addition, manuals were developed at the state and district supervisory levels, which did much to improve the quality of the meals served as well as to set standards for equipment, sanitation, and safety in the lunch program. A further benefit of the WPA’s involvement in the program was that much of the labor was provided without cost to a school district. As such, lunch prices were held to a minimum and more children were able to participate, with the result that the program expanded rapidly throughout the nation.
Not surprisingly, the onset of World War II had a significant effect on the school lunch program. The rise of defense industries, for example, resulted in a sharp drop in the number of people employed by the WPA, and in early 1943 the agency's activities came to a close. In the meantime, the enormous amount of food required to support the U.S. Armed Forces and the Allied war effort soon depleted farm surpluses, and the quantities of food available for the school lunch programs declined sharply. But by this point federal government support for the school lunch program had gained enormous popularity, both among the public and in Congress, and in 1943 the latter voted to authorize the funding needed to continue the program for another year. Similar laws were enacted in 1944 and 1945, so that the school lunch program continued in spite of the demands of the war.
Congress finally decided to make the program permanent with the passage of the National School Lunch Act of 1946, which among other things declared that “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” the federal government would provide assistance to the States to provide “an adequate supply of food and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation and expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs.”
The national school lunch program that emerged from the New Deal is just one more example of how the sensible use of nation’s national resources—including government revenue—may be used to improve our nation’s economic and physical well-being. In the years since the New Deal, however, the school lunch program has often come under assault from conservatives as too expensive. One result was an effort to privatize much of the program in the 1970s and '80s. As a result, many districts adopted “kid friendly” fast foods menus of pizza and fries while allowing vending machines – which dispensed the very sugary drinks Mayor Bloomberg is now limiting – to be placed within school buildings. Most experts now agree that this was a mistake and that, as was the case in the 1930s, it is critical for those in a position of responsibility to ensure that the food served to our young people meets basic nutritional standards.
Given all of this, it would appear that attacks on government nutrition programs follow the same pattern of our abandonment of the Glass-Steagall Act, our move away from proper regulation of the banking and financial sector, and our refusal to recognize the short- and long-term benefits of a massive infrastructure building program. We turn away from the common-sense ideas of the New Deal at our peril.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.