Operating under the aegis of the Food and Nutrition Service of USDA, the NSLP and the SBP play key roles in ensuring the nutrition and health of children in the United States. The NSLP offers nutritious lunches in 99 percent of U.S. public schools and in 83 percent of private and public schools combined (USDA/ERS, 2004). The SBP offers breakfasts in approximately 85 percent of public schools (USDA, 2007a). With about 95 percent of U.S. children eating one or two meals at school on school days (including children who bring their lunches from home), the school cafeteria holds the potential to promote sound dietary habits among all schoolchildren, regardless of whether they participate in the school meal programs (Kennedy and Davis, 1998).
The purpose of the NSLP, as summarized in the enabling legislation, is “as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food” (National School Lunch Act, P.L. 79-396, Stat. 281 (June 4, 1946): §2). This section of the National School Lunch Act has not been changed over the life of the program—more than six decades. Congress authorized the SBP as a pilot program in 1966 (Child Nutrition Act, P.L. 89-642, (October 11, 1966)). When Congress permanently authorized the SBP in 1975 under an amendment to the Child Nutrition Act (P.L. 94-105, (October 7, 1975)), it stated “it is the purpose and intent of the Congress that the school breakfast program be made available in all schools where it is needed to provide adequate nutrition for children in attendance” (Martin, 2008a).
From the onset, federal reimbursement for school meals has been linked to specific regulations. The NSLP was required to operate on a nonprofit basis and to serve meals at no cost to children who were determined to be unable to pay (National School Lunch Act, P.L. 79-396, Stat. 281 (June 4, 1946): §2). In addition, Section 9 of the National School Lunch Act gave the Secretary of Agriculture the authority to prescribe the minimum nutritional requirements for school lunches. In 1946, the secretary prescribed three food-based meal patterns (USDA, 2008a):
Type A lunches, which consisted of 8 ounces of whole milk, 2 ounces of protein-rich food, ¾ cup of vegetables or fruit, one portion of a bread product, and 2 teaspoons of butter or fortified margarine;
Type B lunches, which had the same specification for bread and milk and half the portion of the other food groups as Type A lunches and which were devised for schools where facilities were not available to provide a Type A lunch; and
Eight ounces of whole milk, which supplemented lunches brought from home.
The SBP initially had a meal pattern similar to that of the Type A school lunch but was adapted for a smaller meal size (Martin, 2008b). Meals that conformed to the meal patterns were eligible for some degree of federal reimbursement. Initially, the federal reimbursement for meals was much lower than their cost (Martin, 2008b).