Have you ever wondered where school lunches come from? How did that square of pizza and side salad end up on your lunch tray and how is it connected to the Black Panthers? Let’s take a deep dive into how the American school food system works.

First, we need to know how we got here. Believe it or not, school meals were not always a thing! They first emerged in the United States during the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 19th century in cities like Philadelphia and Boston. These food programs were led by local nonprofits in response to rising poverty in the cities, where many jobs were low-paying and hazardous. Over the next several decades school lunches grew in popularity, especially during the Great Depression. Finally, in 1946 President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act into law, which established the federally-funded National School Lunch Program (NSLP) that we still use today. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) was tasked with overseeing the program and provided options for free and reduced lunches for students in need. It was a win for kids, parents, schools, and even farmers, whose crop surpluses were bought by the government to use for meals. Perhaps the biggest winner was the military though, as the NSLP was primarily seen as “a measure of national security” to ensure that American men would be well nourished-enough to serve in the military.

Regardless of its initial goals, the NSLP has been a huge success and is a vital part of the fight against child hunger in the US. The USDA has even added additional food programs over the years such as the School Breakfast Program (SBP) and the NSLP Seamless Summer Option (SSO). One thing that many of these programs have in common is that they were inspired by community initiatives by those most affected by the issue (usually women and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)). The SBP, for example, was inspired by the Black Panther Party’s massively popular Free Breakfast for Children Program in the 1960s. The FBI actually feared the Panthers’ breakfast program more than their use of armed self-defense because it was so popular and successful in local communities. Thus, the US government went to work attacking them with police while simultaneously adopting a national free breakfast program of their own. This is a common theme of government programs, where communities lead and the government (oftentimes reluctantly) follows while often contributing to the issue itself.

So, how does the NSLP work? For context, it’s a massive program with around 100,000 participating schools serving nearly 30 million kids a day prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is administered by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) at the federal level and by state education agencies at the state level who operate the program through agreements with individual school districts. Public schools, non-profit private schools, residential childcare institutions, and charter schools are all eligible for the program and participating schools receive cash reimbursements for every meal served as well as free food from the federal government (FRAC). In the 2021-22 school year, participating “high lunch” schools will be reimbursed $3.68 for free lunches, $3.28 for reduced-price lunches, and $0.37 for paid lunches. And remember that part about the NSLP being a win for farmers because the government agreed to buy their surplus crops? Well, that’s still a key part of the program and allows the USDA to provide schools with large amounts of free produce every year. In order to receive these benefits, schools must agree to meet the FNS’s health and nutrition standards. How they meet those standards is up to each district however, and that leads us to one of the issues with the current system.

In an effort to keep the cost of meals low amid funding cuts, many schools have turned to corporate food producers in the last several decades like Tyson and Domino’s Pizza to provide cheap and otherwise unhealthy meals that satisfy the FNS’s rather generous nutrition standards. Some infamous examples include counting pizza sauce and french fries as a full serving of vegetables. You might be wondering why the FNS’s standards are so generous and the answer to that is… corporate lobbying! The big food companies have spent millions of dollars to weaken or change the nutritional standards and their efforts, combined with the Trump administration’s proposals to make the rules more “flexible,” have done serious damage. 

School partnerships with corporations have not only led to less healthy meals, but are also a huge marketing opportunity for companies looking to sell children on their brand of treats. While the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act sought to address this by putting limits on the amount of fat, sugar, sodium, and calories of à la carte foods in schools, food companies just developed new recipes for existing products, kept all of the branding, and added a small label. They’re called “copycat snacks” and they’re virtually indistinguishable from their regular counterparts.

Another major issue is “lunch shaming.” When a student doesn’t have enough money to pay for their lunch or already has debt on their account, schools will sometimes serve them an alternative (often worse) meal in an effort to make their parents pay. While the FNS requires schools participating in the NSLP to have a policy on student meal debt, it offers no guidance on what that policy should be. As a result, there is wide variation across the country when it comes to dealing with students who owe lunch money. Some of the worst policies include throwing away a student’s already-served hot meal for a cold deli sandwich or PB&J.

Schools will sometimes serve them an alternative (often worse) meal in an effort to make their parents pay.

This practice has been labeled lunch shaming because the meals are not only less nutritious and less appetizing but can also be a source of stigma and bullying since it’s easy to see who got a cold lunch instead of the normal hot meal. Critics have pointed out that these policies largely hurt students even though they’re not the ones responsible. Lunch debt remains an issue throughout the country, with 75% of school districts reporting outstanding student lunch debt in 2019. Seattle schools are no exception and in 2017 local parent and Seattle Public Schools (SPS) graduate Jeffrey Lew made national news when he raised more than $40,000 to pay off lunch debt in local districts. As of 2019, SPS still had more than $46,711 in lunch debt.

So, what can we do? We have to first understand that all of these issues are interconnected and have their roots in a larger system of economic injustice and white supremacy. To address these issues at the root level, we’re demanding that school meals be fresh, culturally relevant, and free for all students. We need to get corporations out of our cafeterias and replace their generic junk food with real, nutritious meals that reflect the cultural diversity of our communities. FEEST research shows that students not only want fresh, healthy food, but that their ability to learn, retain information, participate and collaborate in class, etc dramatically increases when they have access to it! Read more about it in our policy memo here.

We’re demanding that school meals be fresh, culturally relevant, and free for all students.

And we need these meals to be free for everyone—no exceptions. Free meals for all with proper funding for schools would make it so that cafeterias don’t have to rely on corporate partnerships to provide meals and would eliminate student lunch debt entirely. One way to do this is through the NSLP’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows schools to provide free meals to all students if 40% or more qualify for other programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Luckily, we have local champions like SPS Nutrition Services Director Aaron Smith, who is working with us to ensure that all eligible schools receive the CEP!

Our vision for a more just school food system is not only possible, it’s already being built. What role do you want to play in finishing it?