When I saw National School Lunch Week on the calendar for Oct. 15-19, it occurred to me there might be a straight line to be drawn between the past need to solve a national malnutrition problem and today’s epidemic of childhood obesity. My thought was that if the National School Lunch Program helped erase mass malnutrition in the past, maybe this 66-year-old program could solve our growing obesity problem in the future. Some time ago, I read that 40 percent of draftees in World War II were classified 4F simply because of malnutrition, and that that was the impetus behind President Harry S. Truman’s signing the National School Lunch Act in 1946. Draft records seem tell a different story. Draft boards rejected 30 percent of registrants for all physical defects, and while malnutrition might have played a role for some muscular and bone malformations, other reasons for rejection involved everything from hearing to hernias to mental deficiencies and diseases to syphilis. Before World War II, the problem of malnutrition was not as certain as it might seem, making it hard to say that the school lunch program was designed to solve it after the war. So, why was the modern day school lunch program born in 1946? I think the answer lies with its sponsor, segregationist Sen. Richard B. Russell, the Georgia Democrat who ruled the U.S. Senate for 40 years. Russell used Jim Crow laws to keep Blacks in the South in their place, while he pushed “New Deal” programs to promote rural white Georgia. The National School Lunch Program – with its nutritional minimums – was just another in a long line of programs Russell delivered to rural Georgia, along with agricultural price parity, rural electrification, farm loans and funding for agricultural research. Indeed, by the time Russell created the modern school lunch program, its elements were already in place. USDA’s official history of the program points to Public Law 320 adopted on Aug. 23, 1936, which gives the Secretary of Agriculture 30 percent of the gross receipts from customs duties to buy certain agricultural commodities. “The object of this legislation was to remove price-depressing surplus foods from the market through government purchase and dispose of them through exports and domestic donations to consumers in such a way as not to interfere with normal sales,” USDA’s history says. Local school lunch programs became “constructive outlets” for these commodities. “Many needy school children could not afford to pay for lunches and were sorely in need of supplementary foods from a nutritional standpoint. Thus they would be using foods at school which would not otherwise be purchased in the market place and farmers would be helped by obtaining an outlet for their products at a reasonable price,” it continued. In March 1937, there were 3,839 schools receiving commodities for lunch programs serving 342,031 children daily. Two years later, the number of schools participating had grown to 14,075 and the number of children had risen to 892,259. As one who proclaimed his faith in the “family farm,” Russell just kept this system going forward in 1946. He was happy as long as any lines to hand out commodities were kept strictly segregated between Whites and Blacks. The $70 million school lunch program Russell put in place for 1947 cost the country $11.1 billion last year. The modern school lunch program has served more than 224 billion meals. It operates in more than 100,000 public and non-profit schools and residential childcare programs. It’s free for kids from families up to 30 percent of the poverty level and it’s partially subsidized for others. Schools last year got $2.86 for every free meal and $2.46 for every partially subsidized lunch they serve. Snacks and breakfasts have their own rates. For its first 65 years, the national school lunch program’s prime directive was to provide school kids with meals that met nutritional minimums. This 2012-13 school year, instead of there just being nutritional minimums to consider, all school lunch players were told to impose restrictions on fat, sodium and calories. This change has left students across the country protesting, saying they are hungry because of calorie restrictions being imposed for the first time on school lunches. Many of the protests are being played out on social media with enough creativity to get a lot of attention. These calorie restrictions did not emerge from a virgin birth, but rather from nutrition standards written by USDA in order to implement the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. It just took until now for the law, standards and implementation to all line up. This all occurred in the light of day in a broad bipartisan effort. The 2010 law not only achieved big bipartisan votes in both the House and Senate, but it had the support of prominent conservatives like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Now a Fox News celebrity, Huckabee praised the law because he said it “will help address childhood obesity by reducing the fat and calorie content of school meals.” With this school year being marked by student complaints over portion control and numeric limits on calories, it is not too surprising that someone in Congress would drop a bill to drop the calorie limits. Every political season has a couple of sideshows and a bill to eliminate calorie limits entirely has turned into one of them. The “No Hungry Kids Act” would do just that. It’s sponsored by Rep. Steve King, R-IA, whose Democratic opponent this year just happens to be Mrs. Tom (Christie) Vilsack, wife of the Secretary of Agriculture. LeMars Community and Gehlen Catholic are schools in the King-Vilsack congressional district of eastern Iowa. The LeMars Daily Sentinel recently reported on the school lunch changes, depicting both schools being buried in paperwork and concerned about increases in food waste in addition to student complaints about portion size. And while Sen. Charles Grassley, R-IA, has – unlike King – been reluctant to criticize USDA for doing the job Congress gave it to do, he says he’s been taking many complaints from Iowa parents and observes that “you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Now calorie experts like NYU’s Marion Nestle say the limits – 650 calories for K thru 5th grade, 700 calories for 6 thru 8th grades and 850 calories for high school students – should be enough for kids who are “sedentary, underactive and prone to obesity.” Government-imposed calorie restrictions are a subject without much in the way of a rosy history. Some time ago I said I found the whole subject icky and that’s pretty much how I continue to feel. Maybe many of the complaints about USDA’s calorie restrictions are coming out of Midwest states because those kids are still engaged in what are called “chores,” a non-recreational activity performed before and after school. Or how about schools where up to 65 percent of the students, girls and boys, are spending up to two hours in athletic activity? The kids who are protesting are already getting push-back from the top. There are “talking points” on USDA’s website for those wanting to support the calorie restrictions. What I did not see addressed on these is the simple fact that kids come in all shapes and sizes. But it’s starting to look to me like USDA got pretty telescoped on the 17 percent (or 12.5 million) children and adolescents aged 2-19 that are obese, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In other words, did USDA come up with a plan for fat kids without regard to the others? Happy National School Lunch Week!