President Harry S. Truman was a believer in, and practitioner of, healthy living habits. He often took daily walks, ate a balanced diet, did not smoke, and drank alcohol (he liked bourbon whiskey) in moderation. He also maintained a healthy weight; in 1952, he expressed pride that he could still wear suits he had purchased in 1935.
President Truman’s concern for his personal health extended to a concern for the physical health of the citizens of the United States. In accepting reports of the President’s Committee on the Health Needs of the Nation, which he established, Truman applauded the commission’s conclusions that there must be additional – and affordable – health facilities. He was well aware of how contentious and partisan national health care policy was; nowhere was this better illustrated than in the debate over Truman’s national health insurance program, a key component of his Fair Deal, but one that Congress refused to pass.
Another commission, the President’s Advisory Commission on Universal Training, was in part a product of Truman’s concern that many men – about one-third in his estimate – had been declared physically unfit and rejected for military service during World War II. Universal Training, which Congress also refused to pass, was to have been part of President Truman’s postwar military structure. It would have created a reserve force of citizens, whose training would provide an opportunity for self-improvement, including improved “physical standards of the nation’s manpower.”
Whereas most of his health policies failed in Congress, Truman enjoyed an important success when he signed the National School Lunch Act on June 4, 1946. In doing so, he noted that “no nation is any healthier than its children or more prosperous than its farmers.” School cafeterias were outlets for agricultural surpluses, which kept farm prices stable. Six months before, in his State of the Union address, in January 1946, Truman announced, “one of the best possible contributions toward building a stronger, healthier nation would be a permanent school-lunch program on a scale adequate to assure every school child a good lunch at noon.” In signing this law, Truman established on a continuing basis a program that previously had been funded from year to year.
In her book “School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program,” Susan Levine noted that the school lunch program initially did not benefit all children. The requirement that states provide matching funds for federal contributions resulted in poorer states having difficulty funding the program, which meant that many poor kids did not receive a school lunch.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture did not ensure that black schools in segregated areas participated in the school lunch program. Furthermore, the nutritional quality of the lunches offered varied and the types of foods that were available to students fluctuated year by year according to whether or not they were on the surplus list.
Still, as Levine concluded, there’s no doubt that the program overall was a “triumph” and that it improved the lives of millions of school children. Bishop Francis Reardon of Saint William Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, expressed his satisfaction with the program in a letter that he wrote to President Truman in May 1948. In this letter, which is housed at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, Bishop Reardon told the President that as a result of the school lunch program, the church’s school cafeteria now fed 200-300 children – and their mothers – per day, up from 40 per day before the program. The church’s focus was on “every child,” and the cafeteria served the surplus products from the “warehouses from which Uncle Sam feeds a great portion of the world.”
Visitors to the Truman Library can now see a special temporary interactive exhibit about the school lunch program that the Library has borrowed from the Institute of Child Nutrition at the University of Mississippi.
Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.