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Refresher Course: America’s school lunch program

School lunch at a Manchester elementary school in 2016.
Ted Siefer
School lunch at a Manchester elementary school in 2016.

Every other Tuesday, the team behind Civics 101 joins NHPR’s All Things Considered host Julia Furukawa to talk about how our democratic institutions actually work.

Civics 101 host Hannah McCarthy joins us this week to talk about school lunches: why schools began to feed their students, who’s in charge, and who pays for it. Hannah, welcome.


Hannah, how did public schools come to provide lunch for students?

So long before we ever developed a national school lunch program, there were these piecemeal moves around the country to provide lunches for students. It began as this mix of volunteer programs and city-led programs. The big idea in all of this, though, is that it shouldn't cost the school district money. This was happening during the Progressive Era in the U.S.

But really, what made it all happen—I think this is really interesting—World War II. We have this problem. A lot of the young men who signed up or got drafted were too malnourished to actually serve because they were children of the Great Depression. And the government realized, essentially, that we need to make sure that kids get fed enough good food or we won't have a strong military. It was a national security issue. So in 1943, Congress authorized $60 million in funds for school lunches. And by 1946, that's the year after the war ended, that had transformed into the National School Lunch program.

Wow. So Hannah, who oversees school meals now and where does that money come from?

That is the states.

In terms of who pays for it, the answer is: it's the government, it's the schools and it's families or students themselves. So you've got students who are under a certain minimum income level in their households. They get qualifying meals. That means meals that meet USDA standards [are] essentially fully covered by the federal government. There are kids between a minimum income level and a maximum income level. They get subsidized meals, meaning the government covers part of the cost. And then kids over that maximum income level have to pay full price.

And then on top of all of that, the USDA does donate additional food to schools to provide to students. So that seems straightforward enough, except for the fact that the money the school pays to bring food in, exceeds the money they receive from the federal government to cover the cost of that food.

And then, because you have to apply for the federal school lunch program, there are a lot of kids who are not actually enrolled, even if they qualify. So essentially, Julia, you have schools left with a financial and social puzzle to solve.

So, Hannah, where do school meals stand today?

So something really interesting happened. You might remember that there was a global pandemic. And during that time, you had a lot of kids who were engaged in remote learning. They were not going into schools. So even those students who were enrolled in the National School Lunch program did not have access to meals. So the federal government and states across the country offered these vouchers that basically allowed every student, regardless of income level, to get a free meal from school. They could go pick it up.

Now, what happens after this is kids are returning to schools and schools are realizing, wow, it made a big difference in a lot of children's lives to have access to free meals, meals that they didn't have to apply for

And so a lot of these schools made the choice to continue to make meals available to all students for free, eliminating the need basically to apply for the National School Lunch program and leveling that playing field of the school cafeteria.

Right now there are eight states that actually provide universal free lunch from the state level down. There are also schools that have decided to do this on their own—I'm talking about individual schools or school districts—because I think a lot of schools realize, essentially, that a well-fed kid is only going to result in a happier student body, a student body better capable of learning and parents who are less concerned about whether or not their kids are getting fed at the end of the day.

Michelle Liu is the All Things Considered producer at NHPR. She joined the station in 2022 after graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism.
Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
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