National School Lunch Program

History provided by the US Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service

The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program that provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. The program was established under the National School Lunch Act, signed by President Harry Truman in 1946, although its roots stem far earlier.

Commodity Donation Program
The depression of the 1930's brought on widespread unemployment. Millions of people in the cities lost their jobs and were without means of support for themselves and their families. They were obliged to seek help through public assistance programs.

Much of the production of the farm went begging for a market, surpluses of farm products continued to mount, prices of farm products declined to a point where farm income provided only a meager subsistence. Millions of school children were unable to pay for their school lunches, and with but limited family resources to provide meals at home, the danger of malnutrition among children became a national concern. Federal assistance became essential, and Congressional action was taken in 1935 to aid both agriculture and the school lunch program.

Public Law 320 passed by the 74th Congress and approved August 24,1936, made available to the Secretary of Agriculture an amount of money equal to 30 percent of the gross receipts from duties collected under the customs laws during each calendar year. The sums were to be maintained in a separate fund to be used by the Secretary to encourage the domestic consumption of certain agricultural commodities (usually those in surplus supply) by diverting them from the normal channels of trade and commerce. The object of this legislation was to remove price-depressing surplus foods from the market through government purchase and dispose of them 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 USDA under the terms of such legislation. Many needy school children could not afford to pay for lunches and were sorely in need of supplementary foods from a nutritional standpoint. Thus they would be using foods at school which would not otherwise be purchased in the market place and farmers would be helped by obtaining an outlet for their products at a reasonable price. The purchase and distribution program was assigned in 1935 to the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation which had been established in 1933 as the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation to distribute surplus pork, dairy products, and wheat to the needy. In March 1937, there were 3,839 schools receiving commodities for lunch programs serving 342,031 children daily. Two years later, the number of schools participating had grown to 14,075 and the number of children had risen to 892,259.

In a still further effort to be of assistance, the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation (and later the Surplus Marketing Administration) employed a special representative in each State in 1939-1940 to work with State and local school authorities, Parent-Teacher Associations, mothers clubs and similar organizations in an effort to expand the school lunch program.

The growth of the program from 1939 to 1942 is evidence of the success of their efforts. During that period the number of schools participating increased by 78,841, and the number of pupils participating increased by 5,272,540. The 1941-42 school year became the peak year in participation and in the use of commodities in school lunch programs before the effects of World War II upon the food supply became evident. During that year, 454 million pounds of food valued at over $21 million were allotted to schools.

The distribution of commodities was made possible through the teamwork of Federal, State and local governmental units. Vast quantities of foods were distributed to needy families and charitable institutions, in addition to those distributed to schools. It was essential, therefore, to have an effective administrative organization at each level of government as well as physical facilities to care for the warehousing, packaging and distribution of the foods.

At the State level, a director of commodity distribution was responsible for the proper administration of the program, including the ordering of the foods from the Government, arranging for proper warehousing at strategic points throughout the State, setting up and maintaining adequate records to account for the receipt and distribution of all foods shipped into the State, and reporting to the Federal Government from time to time as required.

Before an agency such as a school board, P.T.A., mothers' club, or other civic or social organization sponsoring a school lunch program could receive surplus commodities, it was required to enter into a written agreement with the state distributing agency providing substantially:

  •     That the commodities would be used for preparation of school lunches on the school premises
  •     That the commodities would not be sold or exchanged
  •     That the food purchases would not discontinued or curtailed because of the receipt of surplus foods
  •     That the program would not be operated for profit
  •     That the children who could not pay for their meals would not be segregated or discriminated against and would not be identified to their peers
  •     That proper warehousing would be provided and proper accounting would be rendered for all foods received

At first, commodities were allotted to schools based upon the number of undernourished and underprivileged children participating in the program. However, this was soon changed to an allotment based on the total number of children participating in the program.

The maximum quantity of any food that any school could receive was based upon a maximum quantity per child per month established by USDA. This method of allocation persists to this day, with the exception that for some items the allocation is unlimited if the supply is adequate.

National School Lunch Act Approved
Equipment installations, especially in the larger schools in cities and rural consolidated districts, were expensive. In the majority of school buildings there was no available room suitable to the installation of kitchen equipment, separate dining space was not available, and additions to or extensive remodeling of existing buildings would be necessary if the program were to be inaugurated. Without some guarantee as to a future, this was regarded as a high risk investment, and hampered program growth.

The 79th Congress (1946) recognized the need. Legislation was introduced to give the program a permanent status and to authorize the necessary appropriations for it. Following hearings on the proposed legislation, the House Committee on Agriculture Report stated, in part: "The need for a permanent legislative basis for a school lunch program, rather than operating it on a year-to-year basis, or one dependent solely on agricultural surpluses that for a child may be nutritionally unbalanced or nutritionally unattractive, has now become apparent. The expansion of the program has been hampered by lack of basic legislation. If there is an assurance of continuity over a period of years, the encouragement of State contribution and participation in the school lunch program will be of great advantage in expanding the program.

"The national school lunch bill provides basic, comprehensive legislation for aid, in general, to the States in the operation of school lunch programs as permanent and- integral parts of their school systems.... Such aid, heretofore extended by Congress through the Department of Agriculture has, for the past 10 years, proven for exceptional benefit to the children, schools, and agriculture of the country as a whole, but the necessity for now coordinating the work throughout the Nation, and especially to encourage and increase the financial participation and active control by the several States makes it desirable that permanent enabling legislation take the place of the present temporary legislative structure.... The educational features of a properly chosen diet served at school should not be under-emphasized. Not only is the child taught what a good diet consists of, but his parents and family likewise are indirectly instructed."

The legislation was identified as the "National School Lunch Act," and Section 2 of the Act defines its purposes: "It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, 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 and other food, by assisting the States, through grants-in aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of food and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation and expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs.”

The Act spelled out very clearly just how the funds should be apportioned among the States. Exclusive of any amount which might be appropriated from year to year for nonfood assistance (equipment purchases), the Secretary was required to pay out to the States not less than 75 percent of the amount appropriated to be used by the schools for food purchases. The funds allotted to Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands could not exceed 3 percent of the total appropriation for food purchases. The apportionment to States was based on two factors: "The number of school children between the ages of 5 and 17, inclusive, in the State, and the need for assistance in the State as indicated by the relation of the per capita income in the United States to the per capita income of the State." This meant that the States with the lower per capita income would receive a greater proportion of the Federal funds than States whose per capita income was equal to or greater than the per capita income of the United States.

Section 5 provided that $10 million of the total appropriation each year should be apportioned among the States to assist school districts in purchasing equipment for the program. These funds were to be apportioned among the States on the same basis as the funds for food purchases.

Section 6 gave the Secretary authority to use up to 8.5 percent of the appropriation for administrative expenses. This section provided also that any funds remaining after the apportionment of funds to the states and territories for food and equipment purchases and for administrative expenses could be used by the Secretary for direct purchases of food to be distributed among the schools participating in the lunch program "in accordance with the needs as determined by the local school authorities."

Section 7 called for a matching of Federal funds paid to the States as follows:

  •     Fiscal years 1947 to 1950 -$1.00 for each Federal $1.00
  •     Fiscal years 1951 to 1955 -$1.50 for each Federal $1.00
  •     Fiscal year 1956 and thereafter -$3.00 for each Federal $1.00

In States where the per capita income was less than the per capita income of the United States, the matching requirement was reduced by the percentage by which the State per capita income was less than that of the United States.

In meeting the matching requirement, the payment for lunches by children, moneys paid out by school boards, and the reasonable value of foods, equipment, labor and other donations to the program could be regarded as matching funds. However, "the cost or value of land, of the acquisition, construction, or alteration of buildings, of commodities donated by the Secretary, or of Federal contributions" could not be considered as matching funds. States were required to enter into written agreements with the Secretary concerning the receipt and disbursement of Federal funds and foods received in support of the lunch program, and for the supervision of the program in all schools to assure compliance with the provisions of the Act and regulations and directives issued by the Secretary concerning program operations.

Likewise, schools participating in the program were required to execute agreements with the State educational agency. These agreements provided principally that the sponsoring agency for the school would:

  1.     Serve lunches meeting the minimum nutritional requirements prescribed by the Secretary.
  2.     Serve meals without cost or at reduced cost to children who were determined by local school authorities to be unable to pay the full cost of the lunch, and not to segregate or discriminate against such children in anyway.
  3.     Operate the program on a non-profit basis.
  4.     Utilize as far as practicable the commodities declared by the Secretary to be in abundance and to utilize commodities donated by the Secretary.
  5.     Maintain proper records of all receipts and expenditures and submit reports to the State agency as required.

In States where the State educational agency could not administer the program in private and parochial schools, a proportionate amount of the State's share of fund was withheld from the allocation to the State agency for disbursement to the private and parochial schools by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Department also supervised the operation of the programs in these schools and continues to do so where the situation requires.

Section 9 of the Act provided that "Lunches served by schools participating in the school lunch program under this Act shall meet minimum nutritional requirements prescribed by the Secretary on the basis of tested nutritional research." The Secretary prescribed three types of lunches which would be acceptable, designed as Type A, Type B, and Type C. The Type C lunch consisted of 1/2 pint of whole milk served as a beverage. The milk would have to meet the minimum standards of the State and local laws and ordinances concerning butterfat content and sanitation requirements. The minimum nutritional requirements of the Type A and Type B lunches were as follows:


Type A

Type B

Milk, whole

1/2 pint

2 pint

Protein-rich food consisting of any of the following or a combination thereof:


-- Fresh or processed meat, poultry meat,
cheese, cooked or canned fish

2 oz.

1 oz.

-- Dry peas or beans or soy beans, cooked

½ cup

¼ cup

-- Peanut Butter

4 tbsp.

2 tbsp.

-- Eggs



Raw, cooked, or canned vegetables or fruits, or both

¾ cup

½ cup

Bread, muffins or hot bread made of whole grain cereal or enriched flour

1 portion

1 portion

Butter or fortified

2 tsp

1 tsp.

Type A lunch was designed to meet one-third to one-half of the minimum daily nutritional requirements of a child 10 to 12 years of age. By making some adjustments, this meal pattern could be adapted to meet the nutritional requirements for children of all ages.

The Type B pattern was devised to provide a supplementary lunch in schools where adequate facilities for the preparation of a Type A lunch could not be provided.

Schools were reimbursed for a part of the cost of food purchased and used in the preparation of the noon lunches. This was accomplished through a plan of monthly payment to schools at a certain rate (cents) per meal for the number of meals served which had met the nutritional requirements. The maximum reimbursements allowable, established by the Secretary, were: Type A, 9 cents; Type B, 6 cents; Type C, 2 cents. Reimbursement rates for lunches served without milk were reduced by 2 cents, but this was permitted only if an adequate supply of milk meeting State and local standards as to butterfat and sanitation was not available; otherwise, meals without milk were not reimbursable. Total reimbursement to any school could not exceed the total amount spent for food.