A historic moment for Massachusetts Kids

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The Civil Rights History of School Meals for All

Leran Minc, Assistant Director of Public Policy & Jacquelyn Sullivan, Emerson Hunger Fellow


School Meals for All are another step forward in the history of fighting for equity so that every child can thrive

Marginalization and School Meals

Last month, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) celebrated its 75th year of helping ensure students across the nation have access to a meal in the middle of the school day. These meals have been critical to supporting the short- and long-term health and academic success of students.

A toddler enjoys school lunch.
A toddler enjoys school lunch.

Unfortunately, from the start school meals have failed to reach all students who may benefit from them, particularly students from communities that have been historically marginalized such as students who are Black, Indigenous, or other people of color (BIPOC).

In the beginning, NSLP provided funding to states and local communities with the instruction to feed low-income students. The funding and oversight, however, were simply not enough, particularly in a period of segregation and Jim Crow policies.

Following in their Footsteps

The School Meals Advocates Who Came Before Us

States and local governments often invested federal funds into wealthier, white communities with little left over to invest in poorer, BIPOC communities. In one stark example in 1966, the Palestine School District in Arkansas was sued for misuse of funds. A white school had both a cafeteria and a kitchen and a Black school had neither. Lunches would be prepared at the white school and brought by pickup truck to the Black school. Students at the Black school never had a hot lunch.i  As Angela McKee Brown wrote in a recent op-ed, underinvestment and lack of oversight was intentional by the segregationist legislator behind the National School Lunch Act, Senator Richard Russell.

As Project Bread and the Feed Kids, Solve Hunger Coalition advocate for School Meals for All in Massachusetts, we acknowledge we follow in the footsteps of civil rights, Black liberation, and feminist movements, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s when the Right to Lunch movement arose to expand the reach of the National School Lunch Program to a greater number of households.

"We acknowledge we follow in the footsteps of civil rights, Black liberation, and feminist movements."

Packages of fresh fruit waiting for students to grab and go.
Packages of fresh fruit waiting for students to grab and go.

Right to Lunch

Right to Lunch efforts were initially led by the Committee on School Lunch Participation and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) under the leadership of Jean Fairfax, a Black woman.

In an April 1968 report of their findings entitled Their Daily Bread, they demanded the government “convert the [National School Lunch Program] NSLP into a universally free program, but if this proved financially unworkable, it should at least issue uniform free-lunch-eligibility standards”. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1968 called upon the federal government to expand free school lunches for all poor students as part of its Poor People’s Campaign, a month after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination[i].

Reforms still fall short

In 1970, the National School Lunch Act was amended to resemble the current system we know today with families filling out applications to become eligible for free or reduced-price meals with the USDA overseeing and guaranteeing reimbursements. This was a huge leap forward. As long as a household met income requirements and filled out the paperwork the family would receive meals for free or a reduced-price rate with the school receiving an appropriate federal reimbursement. However, these changes still fell short of the calls for free school meals for all.

Women belonging to the Black Panther Party march in two lines.
Women belonging to the Black Panther Party march in two lines.

The Revolutionary Politics of School Breakfast

From 1969 to the 1970s, the Black Panther Party further shaped our current school meals system by instituting the “Free Breakfast for Children,” an initiative that provided free breakfast to thousands of children before the school day.

Members of the party solicited donations from local grocery stores and prepared nutritious breakfasts for any child in need at an Oakland-based church. There was an immediate response from school officials who saw improvements among their students participating in the Panther’s program, and the program began to spread to other cities. The Panthers’ “Free Breakfast For School Children” initiative was vilified by the United States government and the media, but ultimately gained national attention that pressured political leaders into expanding a government-run version of the program through the USDA in 1975.

"Members of the party... prepared nutritious breakfasts for any child in need at an Oakland-based church."

School Breakfast Program

The creation of the USDA School Breakfast Program was a testament to the power of community advocacy and the impact of child nutrition. As argued by Jennifer Gaddis in her book The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools, the anti-hunger efforts of the Black Panthers were revolutionary acts that directly influenced the state and national government to create systemic change.

Legacy of Inequitable Access to School Meals

The History of Inequity is Still With Us

As a result of  the increased rates of food insecurity, Black communities experience disproportionate levels of diet-related diseases due to limited access to adequate nutritious foods. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, African American adults are five times more likely to be hospitalized for high blood pressure than white adults. 

Poor nutrition among children is linked to developmental delays including poor motor skills and language skills that have a lasting impact. School meals not only help mitigate these health-related issues but promote better academic outcomes in the classroom. Equitable access to school meals is essential in promoting child nutrition and the overall well-being of all students. For low-income kids, nearly half of their daily calories can come from school meals.

What We Can Do Today

Bold Action for a Better Future

It is time for us to make the vision of school meals for all students a reality. The current system continues to leave out too many students because of barriers such as paperwork and an outdated measurement of poverty. Civil rights and Black liberation leaders understood a system that sorts children into different categories is likely a system that replicates racial inequality.

School Meals for All
School Meals for All

Project Bread’s Feed Kids campaign seeks to break down these barriers that prevent low-income children of color from accessing adequate nutritious food throughout the day. Not only will this legislation provide free meals to all students in the state, but it will also encourage schools to support SNAP outreach so families have more financial flexibility for their needs. Childhood hunger cannot be solved without sustainable and equitable policies that prioritize the needs of the students inside and outside of the classroom. There are a number of ways advocates and community members can take action to promote equitable access to school meals:

  1. Join Project Bread’s Feed Kids Coalition to support our campaign and ensure school meals for all. 

  2. Reach out to your legislator or post on social media to share your commitment to universal free school meals and urge others to do the same.

  3. Learn more about the history of the National School Lunch Program with in Angela McKee Brown’s op-ed in Civil Eats or Jennifer Gaddis book: The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools

  4. Learn more about the Child Nutrition Outreach Program (CNOP) and promote their work to increase participation in the National School Breakfast and Summer Food Service Programs.

  5. Read more about state and nation-wide efforts to increase child nutrition and racial equity! Find resources from the Racial Equity & Hunger Network here.

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