School Lunch 1966

Every Child Needs
a Good School Lunch

What were the impacts of the National School Lunch Program?

“It Happens Every Noon.” 1966. Produced by the Motion Picture Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

“It Happens Every Noon” functioned as both promotion and a step-by-step guidebook for the National School Lunch Program, encouraging its audience to start a lunch program at their school. The film shows multiple school contexts: a suburban, mostly-white school where nutritious meals help students grow up to be doctors, lawyers, and “tomorrow’s spacemen”; a mostly-Black “city school” with a kitchen delivering bagged lunches; and a remote, country school where teachers distribute the “only meal [students] will receive all day.” Rather than pointing to systemic barriers to participation or flaws in the program’s structure, the film presents lack of participation as a result of the failures of local school communities.

How did the National School Lunch Program’s funding shifts contribute to inequality?

“Cafeteria card of Rosalyn S.M. Won at Punahou School in Hawai’i, dated 5/28/1982.” Punahou Archives. 

After 1950, funding provided by the federal government for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) declined significantly even as participation grew. Funding cuts had immediate impacts: schools replaced their lost revenue by charging students lunch fees. By the 1960’s, these fees were the largest source of funding for most school lunch programs. But for low-income schools, charging students was not a viable solution. While overall participation in the NSLP doubled in its early years, the proportion of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches through the program dropped significantly, contributing to the inequities of race and class endemic in the program.

Levine, Susan. School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008):99, 134.

Poppendieck, Janet. Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 53.

Every Child Needs
a Good School Lunch

In 1941, President Roosevelt convened a White House Conference of community leaders, nutrition scientists, school superintendents, farmers, and food processors to address the nutritional needs of children whose parents had joined the war effort. The Conference resulted in the development of new “Recommended Daily Allowances,” known as the “Basic 7,” to guide  wartime nutrition programs. It also extended new funding for school lunch programs, reflecting the widespread belief that fighting childhood hunger was crucial to national defense.

After the war, Congress moved to make federal support for school lunch programs permanent, passing the National School Lunch Act. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) provided funding to local school districts, but required them to structure their menus around the Basic 7 in order to receive it.

The NSLP did not include any protections against discrimination, enabling southern states — where school segregation and Jim Crow laws prevailed — to deny resources to majority-Black districts. While designed to be a universal program, nearly half of American schools could not participate in the NSLP because of these barriers. In the absence of federal intervention, such systemic barriers to access grew worse over time.

“Today, as I sign the National School Lunch Act, I feel that the Congress has acted with great wisdom in providing the basis for strengthening the nation through better nutrition for our school children … no nation is any healthier than its children or more prosperous than its farmers; and in the National School Lunch Act, the Congress has contributed immeasurably both to the welfare of our farmers and the health of our children.” – President Harry Truman, 1946



Committee on School Lunch Participation, Their Daily Bread, 1968, in Susan Levine, School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). See also Janet Poppendieck, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

Featured Image: The “Type A Meal” as specified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offered children at least a third of their recommended daily allowances for various food groups. Captured here by the USDA in June 1966, courtesy of the National Archives. 

Every Child Needs
a Good School Lunch