History of the school lunch program

The earliest recorded food service program in the United States was instituted in 1853 by the Children's Aid Society in New York City. The society established industrial schools and provided food for all children who attended. These schools were later taken over by New York's public school system, which continued the practice of feeding the children.

Other cities, including Boston, Philadelphia, and Cleveland began similar school lunch programs during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Federal assistance for school food service programs began during the economic depression of the thirties. At this time, the Works Program Administration (WPA) provided federal funds for hiring unemployed people to prepare and serve meals in schools with established feeding programs. In 1935, Congress enacted Public Law 74-320 which appropriated funds to purchase excess agricultural commodities for distribution to school children through various agencies.

During World War II, all surplus food was needed for the war effort, so the surplus commodities program was eliminated and replaced by direct cash assistance to schools. The WPA funding for labor was also eliminated at this time.

National School Lunch Act and National School Lunch Program
World War II draft statistics showed that one third of all men rejected for service in the armed forces were physically unfit because of nutritional deficiencies. Consequently, on June 4, 1946, the National School Lunch Act was passed 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." At this time, Congress also recognized that uncertain commodity allocations
and year-to-year funding hindered the growth of school lunch programs. The National School Lunch Act helped stabilize these programs by authorizing the distribution of agricultural commodities and by establishing the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).