National School Lunch Program History


Early European Experience

Approx. 1790

In Munich, Germany, Benjamin Thompson began a program to educate and feed hungry children.

Earliest Programs in the USA

Approx. 1853

The Children's Aid Society of New York implemented a new program which served students meals while they attended vocational school. However, other schools and facilities were still not convinced to implement their own meal programs.


Approx. 1865

Victor Hugo provided funds for warm meals for students of a nearby school. This led to the "The Society for People's Kitchens in the Public Schools" establishment six years later in Angers, France. Their attempt was to provide meals for students who could not afford it.


Approx. 1875

The Philanthropic School Society in Hamburg, Germany supplied needy children with free text-books, clothing and food. Other similar societies also began to open up in other cities.


Approx. 1894

The Star Center Association first began selling penny lunches in one small school. This then expanded to another school, which led to the establishment of a lunch committee. Lunches were then provided to nine schools within the city.

Holland's Royal Decree

Approx. 1900

Holland was the first country to establish a national legislation for providing school lunches. They declared a royal decree stating that food and clothing must be supplied to public or private school children who were unable to do so themselves. This was because many students would not attend school regularly if these were not provided.

Malnourishment in New York

Approx. 1908

It was estimated that there were sixty to seventy thousand children in New York who were not able to do good school work because they were malnourished. Superintendent of schools, Dr. William H. Maxwell, made a plea to the Board of Education saying, "Again I appeal to you, in the name of suffering childhood, to establish in each school facilities whereby the pupils may obtain simple wholesome food at cost price."

Lunchrooms in Cleveland

Approx. 1909

In the summer of this year, lunchrooms were implemented into seven high schools in this city. Before this, lunches were carted around in "lunch wagons".
The Board of Education agreed within the contract to supply the necessary equipment, heat, gas, and water for these lunchrooms.


Approx. 1910 - Approx. 1916

The school lunch program within this city began when $1200 was given by the Chicago Board of Education to experiment serving hot lunches to sex elementary schools. By 1916, 28 elementary and 31 high schools were in the program.

New York Programs Supported

Approx. 1920

Until this year, school lunches in New York were supported by volunteer organizations. In the beginning of 1920, the Board of Education took responsibility for the lunch programs in Manhattan and the Bronx. The following year they took over all programs within New York!

Earliest Federal Aid

Approx. 1932

School district boards began to become overwhelmed with the amount of necessary funds for running school meal programs. The first means of financial aid for these programs came from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation when it granted loans to various towns in Missouri covering the costs of labor for preparing and serving school meals.

Early Federal Aid Expanded

Approx. 1933 - Approx. 1934

Early federal aid shifted to the Civil Works Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Under these administrations, programs were able to reach 39 States.

N.Y.A Assistance

Approx. 1935

The National Youth Administration was founded in this year. Their goal was to job train unemployed youth. This administration was responsible for training youth to make tables, chairs, and other lunchroom equipment. They were also able to employ over 16,000 youths in school lunch programs across 42 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

State Legislation Programs

Approx. 1937

Fifteen states passed laws in order to authorize local school boards to create and operate lunchrooms. Most schools served the meals at cost, but four states made special provisions for children with financial needs.

Effects of WWII

Approx. 1942 - Approx. 1944

During the war, the Armed Forces needed huge amounts of food supplies. This took from the supply allotted to school lunch programs. Within two years, this food supply available for school lunches dropped from 454 million pounds to 93 million pounds.

Continous School Lunch Program Expansion

Approx. 1946 - Approx. 1968

There was continuous growth in the School Lunch Program from its first permanent stance until 1968. It grew from 4.5 million children participating to 18.9 million. Federal support also grew from about $60 million to over $160 million.

National School Lunch Act Approved

Approx. 1946

Section 2 of the "National School Lunch 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.”

Malnutrition a National Problem

Approx. 1965

USDA's Agricultural Research Service conducted a food consumption survey in which it was found that over 1/3 of the households with incomes of $10,000 or more did not have diets that met all recommended levels of all the nutrients to provide a good diet. The National School Lunch Program began to make attempts to remedy this national problem.

Child Nutrition Act

Approx. 1966

Congress stated the Declaration of Purpose in Section 2 of the Act saying, "In recognition of the demonstrated relationship between food and good nutrition and the capacity of children to develop and learn, based on the years of cumulative successful experience under the National School Lunch Program with its significant contributions in the field of applied nutrition research, it is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress that these efforts shall be extended, expanded, and strengthened under the authority of the Secretary of Agriculture as a measure to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation's children, and to encourage the domestic consumption of agricultural and other foods, by assisting States, through grants-in-aid and other means, to meet more effectively the nutritional needs of our children.”

Impact on Behavior and Learning

Approx. 1971

The principal of Green Bay Wisconsin elementary states in a letter his support of school lunch programs because of their positive affect on students' health, attendance, and school performance. This letter mimicked the support of many teachers, principals, and administrators of this time.