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Child Nutrition Programs: A Legacy of Advocates

Throughout U.S. history, child nutrition programs have been developed and improved to reduce child hunger through the actions of advocates and lawmakers. It falls to us to continue the fight of ensuring no child goes hungry by advocating to strengthen child nutrition programs through Child Nutrition Reauthorization.

March 25, 2022 | By Fleurian Filkins, 28th Class Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow

The blog below is a brief overview of the history of select federal child nutrition programs and does not serve as an exhaustive resource that amplifies all the people and moments that have made these programs what they are today.

In 2020, around 1 in 7 households with children had trouble meeting their nutritional needs, with kids in rural areas and Black, Latino, and Native American children being especially impacted. Today, over two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, child hunger persists as millions of families continue to struggle to make ends meet. Kids who face hunger are more likely to experience developmental impairments, repeat a grade, and have behavioral problems, limiting their ability to thrive.

Londyn (left) and her six-year-old brother, Logan, at a food distribution in Houma, LA.

Historically, policymakers have developed and improved child nutrition programs to help ensure that children do not go hungry during trying times. However, lawmakers did not act alone. Advocates used their shared power to call the government to action by pointing out opportunities to leverage existing programs and develop solutions.

A Brief History of Child Nutrition Programs


1932: Local school lunch programs began receiving federal funding on a small scale.

An old poster with “Every child needs a good school lunch” printed at the top. “Needs” is highlighted in red. At the bottom, it reads “The War Food Administration will help your community start a school lunch program.” In the upper left half, there is an illustration of two children playing baseball. In the bottom right is a photo of a white child eating lunch.

Before there were government-funded child nutrition programs, communities ran volunteer school lunch programs. When the Great Depression hit, communities couldn’t keep up with need, pushing advocates to turn to the government for help.

1946: The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was made permanent, providing states with grants to support school lunch programs in communities that were low-income.

The program lacked adequate funding and was used discriminately, underserving schools that were low-income and/or predominantly Black. In 1968, Right to Lunch efforts run by the Committee on School Lunch Participation and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) released a report that identified program inequities and policy solutions. In 1970, NSLP legislation was changed, establishing the right to free or reduced-price school lunch for every child living in a household with an income below the poverty level.

1966: The School Breakfast Program (SBP) was established as a pilot program.

13 Black children eat breakfast together at one long table. Two Black Panther Party members are bringing milk to the children.

Although the program helped many children get breakfast at school, its limited funding left many children hungry. To meet this need, the Black Panther Party created a program called “Free Breakfast for School Children” in 1970. Their activism put pressure on the government to provide nutritious breakfast at school for all children who were low-income. In 1975, the SBP was expanded and made permanent.

1968: The Special Food Service Program for Children was created, providing grants to states to help provide meals for children when school was not in session.

In 1975, the program was split into two permanent programs: the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the Child Care Food Program. The SFSP provides federal funding to free meal sites that feed children over the summer. The Child Care Food Program was eventually renamed the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), providing funding for childcare providers and others to serve nutritious meals and snacks to children.

1969: The White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health was held.

Stakeholders from civil society, academia, and the policy arena worked together to produce around 1,800 recommendations to address food insecurity in the United States. Among the implemented recommendations were expansions to the NSLP, and the authorization of the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

1972: WIC was authorized as a pilot program.

The intent was to provide vouchers for food to supplement the nutritional needs of pregnant women and young children who are low-income. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture refused to implement the program until ordered to do so by a judge in response to a lawsuit brought by advocates in 1973. In 1974, WIC launched.

2010: Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) was launched as a pilot program, providing funding to purchase groceries over the summer for children who are low-income.

The program was never made permanent, and funding has decreased, leaving many children hungry over summer break.

2020: In response to the pandemic, the government took action to ensure that child nutrition programs could adapt to changing circumstances and increased need.

In response to the unique challenges of feeding kids when school meals were unavailable, Congress created the Pandemic EBT program (modeled after Summer EBT) to ensure kids have access to enough to eat. Unfortunately, those changes are temporary, and many children will face hunger when they end. One way Congress can prevent this is by passing Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation that strengthens child nutrition programs and makes them easier to access year-round.

It’s up to us to call Congress to action.

Access to adequate nutrition is vital for the healthy development and long-term health and educational outcomes of children. Throughout U.S. history, lawmakers have expanded and improved child nutrition programs to help ensure that children have access to the nutrition they need to thrive. Anti-hunger advocates of the past have also played a vital role by spurring legislators to action. Now it’s our turn. We must use our collective voice to ensure Congress prioritizes Child Nutrition Reauthorization and improves child nutrition program access to ensure that no child goes hungry.

🍽️ #ChildNutrition programs help ensure that U.S. children have the food they need to thrive in and outside of the classroom. @hunger explores the history of child nutrition programs and the role of advocates in shaping them.