In 2018, over 22 million elementary and middle school children in the United States depended on federal programs such as NSLP (National School Lunch Program) which provide free or reduced-priced school lunches. When COVID-19 caused schools all over the country to close, those millions of children faced the very real possibility that they would have no access to food for lunch for the rest of the school year. In an attempt to avoid this issue, school districts decided to provide take-out meals for children of low-income families that would otherwise be unable to feed their kids. The Federal Government appropriated an extra USD 8.8 billion under the recently enacted CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act for the School Meal Program in addition to the already budgeted USD 18.2 billion. Furthermore, included in the CARES Act is a provision permitting parents who are concerned about the possibility of their child coming into contact with the coronavirus to instead pick up the lunches themselves.
In contrast to the Japanese school lunch system, where students eat lunch together with their teachers in the classroom, thereby educating the children about proper nutrition, food culture and the food industry, education has never been an integral part of modern U.S. school meal programs. In 1946, a year after World War II ended, Congress enacted the National School Lunch Act which had two objectives: the improvement of poor childhood nutrition, which had been the cause of a substantial number of draft rejections during the war, and the purchase of surplus agricultural products as a welfare measure for struggling farmers. The latter objective is the reason why the provision of school lunches (including lunch, breakfast and food programs during the summer school session) falls under the purview of the Department of Agriculture as opposed to the Department of Education. School lunch time in the U.S. is short – 25 minutes on average, which includes the time it takes students to get from their classrooms to the cafeteria, wait in line for food, and then finally sit down to eat. Consequently, many students leave a substantial portion of their meal uneaten as they are not allotted enough time to finish eating. This is, of course, far from an ideal system, and works counter to the first of the two objectives mentioned above: improving childhood nutrition. Nevertheless, in order to make school schedules more efficient, it is not surprising that lunch time, which is not considered to be strictly “educational”, is often the target of cutbacks.