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More than a century ago, there were the first steps to provide midday meals to children in the nation’s public schools.

In earlier times, children often lived quite close to their school and would walk home for lunch or take a packed meal to school with them.

The rather modest pioneering efforts to feed occurred in Boston and Philadelphia. Child-welfare advocates in 1894 served “penny lunches” to students in Philadelphia. 

In 1910, a group in Boston known as the Womens [sic] Educational and Industrial Union prepared the food in one main kitchen and arranged for it to be taken to the schools. Also in Boston, home-economics classes in schools prepared lunches for elementary schools three days per week. On the days when the prepared lunches were not served, the younger children were given milk and sandwiches.

In rural areas, teachers would sometimes have pupils put their food on the top of the wood stove that warmed the room. Hot food was more desirable than cold.

In the 1920s, the Parent Teacher Association — better known as PTA — groups became involved in feeding children at school, often by donating pots, pans and cooking ranges to the schools.

The patchwork coverage of feeding children in school largely ended with the National School Lunch Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Harry S. Truman.

“It is hereby declared to be the policy of the 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 foods and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance and expansion of non=profit school-lunch programs.”

The 1946 law was prompted in part by a study during World War II that found many of the men called up for the draft had been rejected because of health conditions caused by inadequate childhood nutrition. 

However, the school-food program also was intended to keep farmers in business by providing a market for food that might otherwise be wasted. The U.S. Department of Agriculture would become a major purchaser of America’s bounty from the Earth.

As if children do not live by lunch alone, the school-feeding effort got another big boost in 1966, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Child Nutrition Act. That measure created the school breakfasts.

In more recent times, schools have provided supper to students, and there is a summer-feeding program for students from low-income families. 

Recognizing many children would go hungry without the extra food aid they receive at school, school districts provided food on a take-out basis when the schools were closed last year during the pandemic.


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