September 14, 2020
In this #FRACTurns50 blog, FRAC’s Founding Executive Director, Ron Pollack, shares the organization’s critical role in the expansion of the school meals programs. This is the third installment of a three-part blog series on FRAC’s early role in strengthening the federal nutrition programs.
When FRAC began its operations in 1970, the National School Lunch Program had been in existence for almost a quarter of a century. Enacted in 1946, the program was designed for two purposes: safeguarding the health and well-being of our nation’s children, and encouraging the consumption of agricultural commodities, especially those in surplus so that domestically grown food would yield better prices for U.S. farmers.
Although the program was popular, there was no requirement that it be implemented in every school around the country. Indeed, numerous schools in inner-city areas, as well as those in other communities with high concentrations of impoverished families, did not provide mid-day meals for children. A common problem was that schools in low-income neighborhoods often had antiquated physical plants that did not contain cafeterias, thereby making it difficult to implement the School Lunch Program.
FRAC’s initial school feeding efforts, therefore, focused on ensuring implementation of the program in schools situated in low-income communities. Throughout the early 1970s, federal lawsuits were filed by FRAC against school districts in which inner-city schools did not offer mid-day meals. Suits were filed in such places as Rochester, New York; Philadelphia; and Kansas City — and they claimed violations of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because a significant contrast existed between the availability of school lunches for middle-class versus low-income children.
The resulting adverse publicity was politically and personally embarrassing for many school administrators, and, as a consequence, numerous districts implemented the program even before a court decision was rendered. Even schools with outdated physical plants made needed infrastructure and/or administrative adjustments so that mid-day meals could be served. Significantly, as a result, a growing commitment was made to institute mid-day meal services for virtually all school children around the country.
As lunch programs expanded, FRAC monitored their implementation to ensure low-income and near-low-income children received their lunches for free or at an affordable reduced price. As part of this programmatic oversight, FRAC sought to eliminate discriminatory practices that publicly identified and embarrassed impoverished children when they received their school meals for free or at a low cost. FRAC worked with and trained children’s advocacy organizations and school administrators so that they would prevent such harmful discriminatory practices.
Additionally, early in its existence, FRAC championed the permanent and widespread establishment of the School Breakfast Program. Shortly before FRAC was started, Congress had adopted the Child Nutrition Act of 1966. Among its various provisions, the legislation established a two-year pilot project to experiment with the establishment of the School Breakfast Program in a limited number of schools.
FRAC dedicated a significant portion of its staff efforts to securing the permanent establishment and widespread implementation of the School Breakfast Program. Toward that end, FRAC (in 1972) prepared and widely disseminated a soft-cover book, “If We Had Ham, We Could Have Ham and Eggs . . . If We Had Eggs: A Study of the National School Breakfast Program.” The book analyzed the status, and touted the many benefits, of the National School Breakfast Program. Its main objective was to make the program permanent and to ensure its expansion to schools throughout low-income communities.
The book became the subject of congressional hearings and was widely circulated to members of Congress, anti-hunger advocacy organizations, school administrators, and the media. FRAC used the study as part of its congressional lobbying efforts to promote the School Breakfast Program’s expansion. Significantly as a result, Congress permanently authorized the School Breakfast Program in 1975.
Today, the two school feeding programs are essential components of our nation’s commitment to ending hunger among America’s children. Immediately prior to the pandemic, over 31 million, and over 14 million, children, respectively, were eating school lunches and school breakfasts on a daily basis. FRAC’s enduring commitment throughout the past five decades to establishing, strengthening, and protecting the two programs has therefore played a vital role in safeguarding the health and learning opportunities for low-income children throughout the nation.