Legislative History

The history of school lunch policies and politics took many years to come to fruition. Like any other policy created, this is a complex web of details pieced together by individuals with a plethora of different interests. "One set of major players includes nutrition reformers - education, health, and key welfare professionals, mainly women - who struggled mightily to translate nutrition science into public policy. Another set of player includes farm-bloc legislators and Department of Agriculture officials who created the institutional infrastructure for a national school lunch program. These groups, together with political leaders responding to the demands and interests of their constituents as well as to the popular appeal of children's health, shaped national food and nutrition policies."

At the forefront of the National School Lunch Act is its name sake - Richard Russell, Jr.. At the time Russell was a senator from Georgia who was concerned with the small town farmer and had a sincere passion for agriculture. Additionally, Russell was deeply committed to matters of national defense, as he served as chair of the Armed Services Committee for sixteen years. In order to insure a powerful national defense, Russell understood it would begin with strong, healthy children. Russell seized the opportunity to improve national defense and support agriculture by authoring the nation's most popular social welfare program.

School lunch politics were not created solely to ensure that America's children receive healthy and nutritious meals. School lunch policies also have to do with agriculture and farmers. "School lunch is, surely, rooted in the science of nutrition and ideas about healthy diets, but those ideas have never been sufficient on their own to shape public policy. School lunch, like other aspects of public policy, has been shaped by the larger forces of politics and power in American history."

The relationship between hungry children and struggling farmers began during the Great Depression. Farmers were producing abundant crops, but no one could afford to buy them. Men and women could not come up with the money to feed their families. Some items are brought to the policy agenda by events that simply demand immediate attention. Faced with struggling farmers and hungry children, the federal government made an efficient and responsive decision to solve both problems. Congress passed a law in 1935 creating a separate fund for the Secretary of Agriculture to use, in part, to provide surplus foods for school lunch programs. Through the distribution of these foods, the incomes of farmers went up, and thousands of school children received at least one decent meal a day.

The National School Lunch Program did exactly resemble what many had hoped it would. In the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century the science of nutrition was struggling to find its place in American culture. The general public did not broadly accept the importance of healthy eating and living. However, the economic depression and the New Deal became an opportunity for nutrition reformers to shape food and nutrition policy. "In fact, the National School Lunch Program created in 1946 bore only slight resemblance to the goals of nutrition scientists and home economists. The program was, in its goals, structure and administration, more a subsidy for agriculture than a nutrition program for children. Indeed, the political will to forge a national school lunch program came not from the New Deal social welfare coalition but rather from the Department of Agriculture and a group of southern Democratic legislators who generally opposed federal social programs."

In 1942 Congress was creating their budget, but because of World War II federal money for welfare programs were threatened. It was then that Senator Russell and individuals, such as, George R. Chatfield (chairman of the Coordinating Committee on School Lunches) started rallying their troops and "launched an effort to save the school lunch program".

The school lunch coalition proved remarkably effective. Unwilling to appear unsympathetic to children's health, particularly as the nation was mobilizing for war, congress quickly voted to continue appropriations for school lunches. Indeed, by an overwhelming margin, Congress actually increased the appropriation.