Major Moments in U.S. Food Law

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On Monday, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law, a $4.5 billion expansion of the existing federal school lunch program that has been feeding tots for decades. The new bill ensures that meals will have more whole grains, lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, and it includes plans to expand after-school meal programs to all states. There are also provisions for enforcing nutrition standards for all food and beverages sold on campus, meaning the soda and snack vending machines currently littering cafeterias may go by the wayside. This is huge news for the health and well being of our nation’s kids. Promoting healthy living and fighting childhood obesity have been key issues for First Lady Michelle Obama, and these new standards for school lunches should encourage children to make balanced eating decisions as they grow up. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few other major moments in the history of food legislation.

The Meat Inspection Act and The Pure Food and Drug Act: Upton Sinclair’s 1906 tell-all novel The Jungle was an exposé of the horrifically unsanitary conditions of the American meat packing industry. Public outcry was so great that not one but two acts of food production legislation were passed that same year: the Meat Inspection Act, which required government inspection of animals processed for human consumption, and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which gave the federal government jurisdiction over food in interstate commerce and prohibited misbranded food and drugs. Sinclair, who wrote the book hoping it would urge labor reforms, later quipped, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

National School Lunch Act: School lunch programs began springing up across the United States in the late 19th century; however, as student populations grew, the state and local governments that funded these programs found themselves financially unable to continue providing the service. Federal assistance was necessary, and during the Great Depression, the government stepped in, buying surplus food from hard-pressed farmers and redistributing those resources to schools, which offered needy children cheap but nutritious lunches. The National School Lunch Act, passed in 1946, provided for the continuation of federally funded lunch programs, with schools receiving aid as long as they served meals that met federal nutritional guidelines.

Those nutritional guidelines came under fire in 1981 when the USDA, after Congress slashed child nutrition funding by $1 billion, proposed to adjust the guidelines and redefine what constituted a serving of vegetables: the revised language reclassified condiments such as ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables. While the resulting public outcry prevented this directive from getting off the ground, the USDA changed tactics and soon after implemented the “offer vs. serve” policy in elementary schools as a money-saving measure. Schools still had to offer the five federally mandated components of a school lunch (meat/meat alternate, bread/grain, two servings of fruit/vegetables and milk), but students could refuse any two. (Offer vs. serve had been an option for middle and high schools since 1977.)

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act: This 1990 law standardized the now-ubiquitous black-and-white Nutrition Facts label you see on most of your groceries. This piece of legislation required all food products under the FDA’s purview to bear a label with a clear and easy-to-read breakdown of that food’s nutritional value, including vitamin, mineral and fat content. The FDA later required that other components be listed, such as trans fat content, which has appeared on the labels since 2006.

This list is by no means comprehensive, so if you would like a more thorough look at milestones in the federal regulation of our foodstuffs, check out this timeline from the FDA.

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