America’s understanding of the scale and effects of hunger has grown since President Lyndon B. Johnson established and strengthened many of the country’s food assistance programs 50 years ago.
Today, that understanding has made its way into schools, which feed students through creative approaches, like breakfast in the classroom, and serve as many as three meals a day to their poorest students.
Those efforts trace back to President Johnson’s 1964 declaration of a War on Poverty, when he made the case that the country had to conquer hunger to help children make educational gains and surpass their parents’ fortunes.
“In a land rich in harvest, children just must not go hungry,” he said in his 1965 inaugural address, months after he signed legislation providing permanent funding for food stamps.
In 1966, President Johnson signed the Child Nutrition Act, which expanded the National School Lunch Program and created a pilot school breakfast program that would later be permanently funded in the 1970s.
Many people—including lawmakers charged with determining the fate of the poverty measures—weren’t aware of the extent of poverty in many parts of the country, said James D. Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based advocacy organization.
“There wasn’t a measure, really, of hunger,” he said. “The hunger conversation really didn’t take off until 1967, 68, and 69,” when visiting doctors “found third-world diseases and hunger in the south,” Mr. Weill said. Sen. Robert Kennedy famously visited the Mississippi Delta in 1967 to get a first hand look at how hunger affected its poorest residents.
Stunned by what he saw, tears ran down the senator’s cheeks as he sat on a bed in a windowless shack, rubbing the distended belly of a child who sat on his lap.
“If you’re doing reasonably well, you don’t run into this kind of poverty,” Sen. Kennedy told camera crews documenting his visit. “And certainly people elsewhere in the country have very little personal knowledge about it.”
Neighborhood Health Centers
The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 funded two health centers, in Dorchester, Mass., and rural Mississippi that were largely governed by their low-income patients. Those programs grew into today’s federally qualified health centers, which treat low-income and medically underserved patients, including children, on a sliding fee scale. Today, there are about 1,200 such health centers.
Medicaid was created through 1965 amendments to the Social Security Act to provide health services to a variety of people, including low-income children. In 1967, the agency created a screening program for children under 21 that detected ailments, including hunger, and needs for preventive care.
The 1997 creation of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program provided federal matching funds to states to expand their programs to cover children, including those whose family income exceeds the federal poverty level but is still considered too modest to afford private insurance. Today, Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program provide coverage to 43 million children, including half of all low-income children in the United States.
The Food Stamp Act of 1964 provided the first permanent funding authorization for the food-stamp program. Today, what is now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provides food-purchasing assistance to 46.2 million people in 22.6 million households. About 45 percent of SNAP households included children in 2012, and a majority of those households were headed by single parents, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
School Lunches Expanded
The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 provided additional funding for the National School Lunch Program, which was first authorized in 1946. Today, about 31 million children eat school lunches, about 70 percent of them for free or at a reduced price.
A pilot school breakfast program created through the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 has grown to feed more than 13 million children today, about 85 percent of them for free or at a reduced price. And many schools have extended efforts even further by offering after-school meals and snacks.
The Special Food Service Program for Children, authorized in 1968, piloted efforts to feed low-income students when school was not in session. Today, about 3 million children are fed through the USDA’s summer meals programs.
Wide media coverage of that trip helped fuel support for additional efforts, including a pilot summer food program created in 1968. But federal lawmakers continued to grapple with hunger throughout the 1970s.
Today, anti-hunger advocates say many Americans would still be shocked at the depth of hunger in communities ranging from rural Appalachia to urban Los Angeles, but the consequences of poor nutrition are better understood.
School nutrition programs are among the most widely supported food assistance programs, in part because of the wealth of research linking hunger with academic success.
Nearly 31 million children participated in the National School Lunch Program in 2013-14, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of those, 14.2 million received free meals and 2.9 million received them at a reduced price. More than 13 million children ate school breakfasts, 84.8 percent of them for free or at a reduced price.
In many U.S. households, adults are considered hungry and children are not. That’s in part because of the effectiveness of programs that target child hunger, such as school nutrition, and in part because adults in low-income households frequently prioritize feeding children, especially young children, over feeding themselves.
But because information about children is gathered through surveys of parents, some researchers have said rates of child food insecurity may be underreported.
‘Low’ and ‘Very Low’
The USDA tracks hunger and food access through representative household survey. Respondents with very low food security are those who report “multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake,” such as going whole days without food. Respondents are deemed to have low food security if they report “reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet” but do not indicate a reduced food intake.
In 2012, 20 percent of households with children were considered food insecure, according to the most recent data available. In half of those households, only the adults were deemed food insecure. In 8.8 percent of households with children, the children themselves had low food security. In 1.2 percent of households with children, children had very low food security, a total of about 1 million children.
In a 2006 study of data from about 21,000 kindergarten students, researchers concluded that even marginal food insecurity affected students’ academic achievement.
“As expected, math scores decline with increasing levels of food insecurity,” researchers wrote, adding that growth in scores from fall to spring was also more dramatic for students from food secure homes.
Hunger may also contribute to high rates of school absences. Researchers from the National Institutes of Health have found that food insecure children are more likely to suffer from headaches, stomach aches, and colds than their peers from food secure homes.
School nutrition programs may help counter those effects. In a 1998 study of the implementation of free school breakfast programs in Philadelphia and Baltimore, researchers from Harvard Medical School found that students who began eating school breakfast or eating it more frequently “had significantly greater increases in their math grades and significantly greater decreases in the rates of school absence and tardiness than children whose participation remained the same or decreased.”
While school nutrition programs have grown significantly in the last 50 years, challenges persist.
In a 2013 survey of 1,000 elementary school and middle school teachers by Washington-based Share Our Strength, 73 percent of respondents said they teach students who “regularly come to school hungry because there isn’t enough food at home.”
President Barack Obama’s administration hopes a provision in its Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 will help address that. Through the community eligibility, which will be available nationwide in 2014-15, qualifying high-poverty schools will offer free meals to all students.
The provision will make it easier for schools to increase breakfast participation—which still lags behind lunches—by offering breakfast in the classroom or at grab-and-go kiosks in hallways, models that have been successful in other areas, supporters say.
The 2010 act also extended an afterschool meal program nationwide, allowing students in many areas to eat three meals a day at school.
While school meals fill nutritional gaps for many poor children during the school year, the USDA lacks sites for its free summer meals program, so only one out of every seven children who eat free and reduced-price meals during the school year participate.
The agency has made a national push to boost numbers, and some schools that run summer meal programs have added sites or even mobile units to feed students who lack transportation.
In Pasco County, Fla., drivers steer retired school buses equipped with makeshift dining booths into poor neighborhoods and public housing projects, where children wait in line daily during the summers to climb on board and eat a free lunch.
“We do it because the kids need it,” school support specialist Marilyn Burgess said. “We know there’s a big need out there, so we’re trying to get out where the kids are.”
A senate bill introduced in June would allow areas where 40 percent or more of students receive free- or reduced-price lunches to be eligible for the program. Currently, the bar is set at 50 percent.
Hunger activists say the 2015 reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which covers all school food programs, could bring many other helpful changes. Under the model “first do no harm,” they’ve invited members of congress to visit child nutrition sites so they can speak against cuts or changes they say would undermine effectiveness of programs.
“I think we’ve learned a lot about child development and learning over the last fifty years...” Mr. Weill said. “There’s no doubt that the gains in nutrition are a central part to the conversation,if not the central part.”
Coverage of educational equity and school reform for this series is supported in part by a grant from the HOPE Foundation and the Panasonic Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 2014 edition of Education Week as School Meal Programs Extend Their Reach