The most prevalent school meal program in the United States is the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a federal program signed into law by President Harry S. Truman in 1946. Historically, it was looked to as the foundation for good nutritional health among children in the U.S. Serving over 5 billion lunches per year to eligible students, the main goal of the NSLP is to provide highly nutritious meals for children who may not otherwise have access to a proper diet. Additionally, these meals can feed children who live in food insecure households, or those inadequate access to the necessary calories and nutrients for proper body functions and growth. The NSLP was originally established as a "measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation's children and to encourage domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities".

In the six decades since its beginnings, the program has made a significant shift from not only aiming to prevent malnutrition, but also to fight childhood obesity. The NSLP is currently operating in over 100,000 public and non-profit private schools and residential care institutions. In 2011, the program served low-cost or free lunches to over 31 million children per day.

Historically, the U.S Congress initiated this bill National School Lunch Act in 1946 following an investigation. The investigation found that among men who were rejected for the World War II draft, their health was associated with poor nutrition in their childhood.

The NSLP and other food programs have been used to improve the health of children who are food insecure or at risk of malnutrition. More recently, nutritional guidelines have been developed to address issues of obesity. However, neither underweight children of the past nor the overweight children of the present have been that way solely because of individual choices, lack of nutrition education, or poor food choices. Rather, the nutrition of these children is tied directly to social and economic circumstances, such as family income and access to fresh foods, just as much as it is connected to individual choice factors. Therefore, school meal programs provide an avenue by which these social and economic circumstances can be targeted to improve the nutritional content of children's food. Children's nutrition, moreover, has broader effects on students' educational achievements and behavior.

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