Food Programs

Before the official establishment of the large-scale government-funded food programs that are prevalent today in the United States, other small, non-governmental food programs existed. As early as the late 19th century, there were programs in cities such as Boston and Philadelphia that operated independent school lunch programs, with the assistance of volunteers or charities. Prior to the establishment of government programs, before the 1930s, most school lunch programs were volunteer efforts on part of teachers and mother's clubs. These programs drew on the expertise of professional home economics. For the people who began these programs, school lunchrooms were the perfect setting in which to feed poor children, but more importantly to teach immigrant and middle-class children the principles of nutrition and healthy eating. Thus, the original intent of school meal programs was not to help expand the food security of those in poverty in order to alleviate educational issues, but to primarily instill cultural norms upon children.

During the Great Depression, the numbers of hungry children coming for food overwhelmed lunchrooms. Thus, programs began to look at state governments, then the national government, for resources. The national government then began providing aid for lunches as early as 1932, but it began on a small scale. This funding originated from New Deal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and the Civil Works Administration. The federal government monitored supplies from commercial farmers and purchased surplus commodities (Levine 6). Schools served as an outlet for federal commodity donations. Then, programs expanded in 1935 through the Works Progress Administration and the National Youth Association, both of which provided labor for school cafeterias.

The War Food Administration (1943-1945) helped create School Lunch Programs during World War II.

Eventually, the New Deal policies began to dissolve and farm surpluses were not as large. However, there was still a desire to keep school lunch programs in place, so federal cash assistance began to be appropriated on a year-to-year basis. The National School Lunch Program was subsequently developed.

History of the National School Lunch Program
The NSLP was created in 1946 when President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act into law. By the end of first year, the program helped 7.1 million children. However, from the start, the program linked children's nutrition to the priorities of the agricultural and food interests, tied to the agenda of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In these early years, the program provided substantial welfare to commercial farmers as outlet for surplus commodities, but provided few free meals to those children who were poor, and fed a relatively small number of schoolchildren. In the 1960s, a group of mainstream national women's organizations focused their attentions on shortcomings of NSLP. The evidence they used became crucial to Senate and House debates on race and poverty. At the end of the 1960s, the Nixon administration was forced to expand access to free lunches for poor children. After the 1960s, the NSLP was struggling. Then, in 1966, the Child Nutrition Act was passed, which stated that educational progress was an objective of meal programs in the U.S. By the end of the 1970s, many school advocates saw privatization as only way to keep lunch programs going. Fast food from private companies began to be supplied in cafeterias. Schools continue to struggle with the nutrition of the meals served through the NSLP. However, by the end of the 20th century, the NSLP ranked as the nation's second largest domestic food program after Food Stamps.

Although President Harry S. Truman created the NSLP on June 4, 1946, actual food service in schools had begun long before the official act; however, the NSLP was the first formal recognition of a food service program. The NSLP legislation came in response to claims that many American men had been rejected for World War II military service due to diet-related health problems: it was clear that America's children were malnourished.

In 1962 the National School Lunch Act amended the funding of the NSLP from a state regulated grant aid to a permanently funded meal reimbursement program. The NSLP must update its regulations every five years under the Child Nutrition and Women Infants Children (WIC) Reauthorization Act. In the six decades since its creation, the NSLP has experienced several major changes.

In 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Child Nutrition Act. This Act established the School Breakfast Program (SBP) as a federally assisted meal program that provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free breakfasts to public and nonprofit private school children. This Act was signed during National School Lunch Week and is an extension of the NSLP.

In 1968 U.S. Congress created the Child Nutrition Act, which initiated a two-year pilot project School Breakfast Program and increased meals served to needy students. The Child Nutrition Act was also amended to create the Summer Food Service Program. Congress additionally established the National School Lunch Week.

In 1969 President Richard Nixon said, "The time has come to end hunger in America." He then pushed Congress to authorize free and reduced-price lunches for needy children through sufficient funding in addition to the regular replacement program.

In 1994 a number of changes were made to the NSLP primarily emphasizing the need to standardize the nutritional quality of school meals. Dietary guidelines were proposed to take effect in 1996. Also, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched the Healthy School Meals Initiative to improve nutritional education for school age children.

In 2004, as the childhood obesity crisis came into national focus, new USDA regulations urged school districts to set up wellness policies and initiatives that would answer specific issues to their own needs. These USDA regulations aimed at strengthening nationwide nutritional education and to give schools the autonomy to decide what types of foods could be sold in vending machines and as a la carte items during lunch.

In 2007 the USDA hired the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to oversee a recommendation for "bringing school food up-to-date with current science." (From the report it was concluded that,"Since the school meal programs were last updated, we've gained the greater understanding of children's nutritional needs and the dietary factors that contribute to obesity, heart disease, and other chronic health problems." (Virginia Stallings, MD, Jean A. Cortner Endowed Chair in pediatric gastroenterology at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, head of the IOM team).

In 2010 the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was the most sweeping change in the history of the NSLP. Championed by Michelle Obama and directed by the USDA, these new guidelines required an increase in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The new guidelines also limited sodium, fat and caloric intake to age-appropriate levels. For the first time ever, vending machine snacks and a la carte menu items fall under regulation of the NSLP. The hope is that these new guidelines will allow school children to learn how to make healthy eating choices, and how to embrace nutrition as part of their life choices. These changes went into effect for the 2012-2013 school year.

The National School Lunch Program today
Today, the National School Lunch Program operates in over 101,000 public and non-profit private schools and residential care institutions. Regulated and administered at the federal level by the Food and Nutrition Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), it currently provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children across the nation. In 2011, the NSLP fed more than 31 million children each day. Most students benefit from the NSLP because it subsidizes even full-price meals in the majority of U.S. schools. In its 60-year history, the National School Lunch Program has expanded to include the School Breakfast Program, Snack Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program, and the Summer Food Service Program. At the state level, the National School Lunch Program is usually administered by state education agencies, which operate the program through agreements with school food authorities.

Organizational Structure
The Food and Nutrition Service, an agency of the USDA, administers the NSLP on the federal level. Within individual states, the NSLP is administered by a state agency, in most cases through offices in the State Department of Education. If state law prevents the state from administering the program, the appropriate FNS Regional Office (FNSRO) may administer it. At the local level, the school or school district administers the program. The state agent in charge of the NSLP works with the school district to make sure each lunchroom worker receives the necessary information and supplies to make the program successful. Additionally, the state agent receives direction stemming from the United States Secretary of Agriculture. The NSLP has a wide-reaching relationship with a variety of other organizations. Over the decades, lawmakers have continued to enhance the program based upon changing national views of nutrition.

At the federal level, the NSLP has a significant impact on other federal agencies and programs. For example, the NSLP established a successful relationship with the United States Department of Defense (DoD), the DoD Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program allows schools to use USDA Foods (commodities) entitlement dollars to buy fresh produce. Also, the NSLP program works closely with other federal programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program). Even though the USDA administers the NSLP at the federal level, its greatest influence is at the state and local levels. As a result, school districts choosing to participate in the NSLP follow specific guidelines and receive federal subsidies for each meal they serve.

Aside from its impact on public organizations, the NSLP also has a direct impact on corporate vendors and local businesses. The program is designed to help local farmers by purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables, which make their way to schoolchildren. Also, many food companies, eager to "earn a piece of the pie," are reformulating their foods to meet federal guidelines and sell their products to the government.

The School Breakfast Program
The School Breakfast Program (SBP), which was developed as part of the National School Lunch Program, began as a pilot program in 1966 and then became permanent in 1975. The "original legislation stipulated that first consideration for program implementation was to be given to schools located in poor areas or in areas where children had to travel a great distance to school.". Thus, it was developed directly to target children in poverty. In fact, in "1971, Congress directed that priority consideration for the program would include schools in which there was a special need to improve the nutrition and dietary practices of children of working mothers and children from low-income families." In 1970, before the program was permanent, the SBP served 0.5 million children. In the fiscal year 2011, over 12.1 million children participated every day, 10.1 of which received free or reduced breakfasts.

The SBP works in essentially the same way as National School Lunch Program). As with the NSLP, participating schools receive cash subsidies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for every meal that is served. They must meet Federal requirements and must offer free or reduced priced breakfasts to children who are eligible. The USDA provides schools with technical training and assistance to help food service staffs prepare and serve healthy meals; provide nutrition education to help children understand the link between diet and health.

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