School Lunches Part 3: “Every Child Needs A Good School Lunch”

Part three will probably make you pretty glad you don’t live in 1936.


The 1930s saw widespread unemployment in major cities, leaving families without any means of support. With less purchasing power in cities, production on farms began to pile up, and with this decrease in demand, farm prices began to plummet. Farm incomes dwindled to the point of barely supporting those living there. Millions of children, both urban and rural, were now in a situation of being simultaneously unable to afford a school-provided lunch, while also being provided with meager food at home. By the mid-1930s, children were beginning to pay the toll.

In 1936, Columbia Teachers College nutritionists found American children weighed significantly less than they did five years earlier. In Louisiana, a quarter of all black children and 13 percent of white children were found to be malnourished. An estimated 31 percent of Ohio children were underweight, while in one Chicago study, an overwhelming 72 percent of schoolchildren “failed to meet a standard lower than that recommended by the National Research Council.”

In the face of these grim reports on child health, Congress was finally spurred to act. On August 24, 1936, Public Law 320 was passed and approved. This law gave the Secretary of Agriculture a sum of money (30 percent of the customs duties collected each year) “to encourage the domestic consumption of certain agricultural commodities by diverting them from the normal channels of trade and commerce.” At its heart, Public Law 320 was simple: buy up surplus foods on the market, which would help raise farm prices, then use up the purchased surplus through exports or by donating them domestically.

These millions of pounds of federally-purchased food drove an exponential expansion in the number of schools offering lunches. By March 1937, there were 3,839 schools receiving surplus food for lunch programs, serving 342,031 children. Within two years, over 14,000 schools were participating, feeding nearly 900,000 children a day. By 1942, the Department of Agriculture estimated that 78,851 schools and over five million children were involved in school lunch programs receiving surplus commodities.

The government then went a step further and didn’t just provide food for these programs; it also provided much-needed labor. The Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Work Projects Administration) was created in 1935 as a way to get unemployed workers back into the labor force, working on public projects. School lunch work fell under the WPA’s Community Service Division. Unemployed women from needy homes were a ready source of labor for doing “women’s work”— working as bakers, cooks, clerks, and typists, et cetera — while men did the distribution and sanitation work. Menus, recipes, and manuals were developed and standards set for equipment and safety in the lunch program.

A 1942 handbook provided by the WPA set high, exacting standards for everything, down to the personal appearance of school lunch workers. Women were expected to wear “a foundation garment, or a girdle” under their uniforms, while men were told to wear clean socks and “holes should be neatly mended.” The WPA workbook assured these lunch workers that their efforts would be rewarded with more than just a paycheck; they were helping to build a nation. Part of the introduction to the WPA handbook reads:

All over the country people are learning that children must have good food to grow strong and healthy. The result of regular, well-planned school lunches will be better health, regular attendance at school, and good school work. This will help children become good citizens.

In February 1942, the school lunch program reached a peak of 92,916 schools, serving 6 million children, but the United States’ entry into World War II would have its effect. Defense jobs quickly replaced WPA jobs and the agency closed in 1943. The U.S. Armed Forces quickly siphoned off any surplus commodities for its draftees — men, it can be noted, who were bigger and fitter than WWI draftees, thanks in part to better child nutrition.

After WWII ended, American farmers again found themselves with record surplus crops, and with one eye on ensuring an even fitter population of boys to draft in the future, Congress passed the School Lunch Act of 1946, providing federal funding to make available hot lunches of at least two ounces of meat, a tablespoon of butter, two vegetables, and a half-pint of whole milk. This act would be amended and expanded over the next 25 years, changing its formula of federal payments to states, expanding to include breakfasts, and ensuring the poorest children would not go without a lunch

Because the seeds of school lunch programs had been sown for centuries — from Count Rumford’s 18th-century programs to feed the poor, to the 1904 publication of Robert Hunter’s Poverty, and the malnutrition seen nearly a quarter of World War I draftees — one could argue that school lunches were inevitable, and would have arrived without the advent of the Depression in the 1930s. But, the large numbers of readily available labor (in the form of workers on the WPA payrolls) and millions of pounds of surplus food (in the form of commodities purchased by the government), coupled with growing evidence of increasing child malnutrition brought on by poverty, these three factors in tandem truly provided a tipping point for the school lunch program to take hold across America.


Yeah. That ending is pretty clunky (my paper needed to show a specific confluence of historic events that made something occur, and that was me just spelling it out there), but… you know, screw it — it’s Friday and I’m not going to fix it. PEACE OUT

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One thought on “School Lunches Part 3: “Every Child Needs A Good School Lunch”

  1. I love this. i’ve gone to public school since kindergarten and i graduate in May. I wont say i didn’t love it. To be honest i did, almost every scond of it. But (and there always is one) i have several friends who were homeschooled for most of their lives. They at least have a general idea of what they want to go to college for or do after they’re finished with “highschool”. i have no idea what I’m dong. I’m just now being tlked to about college and i’m so lost. So yeah i think it’s great you homeschool. for no other reason than so your daughter has an oppertunity to figure out what she wants to do before she has to do it.

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