The provision of meals for children in public elementary schools was first authorised by the Education (Provision of Meals) Act 1906, which was amended by an Act of 1914. In the Education Act 1921, school meals were dealt with in sections 82 to 85.
The Act enabled local education authorities to assist school canteen committees, or to defray the cost themselves of providing meals for any of the children attending elementary school who were unable, by reason of lack of food, to take full advantage of the education provided.
In September 1934, Circular 1437 was issued to local education authorities, outlining the scheme of the Milk Marketing Board which had the Ministry of Agriculture's approval, to provide cheap milk to all school children, and young persons attending courses for which grant would be paid by the Board of Education. It also reminded authorities that free milk could be supplied in cases of necessity. The scheme came into operation on 1st October 1934 and led to a large increase in the consumption of milk in schools.
The numbers of children provided with meals between the wars fluctuated owing to periods of economic restriction, but the number of local education authorities making provision rose from a third to a half. Despite this, by 1939, only about 3% of elementary children were supplied with solid meals, mostly free owing to necessity. In the early days of the war, evacuation from vulnerable areas where most of these children lived, caused many feeding problems in the reception areas.
The impact of total war in 1940 brought a change in Government policy, and in July, Circular 1520 enjoined that all school children whose parents desired it, should receive a school meal, payment to cover cost of food alone, in cases of necessity free meals being given as before. This provision it was visualised, would release many more women for war work. Expansion of the School Meals Service had considerable official support, but progress was hampered by bombing and equipment difficulties. In October 1941 Circular 1567 informed local education authorities that rates of grant had been considerably raised and this stimulated procrastinating authorities to make increased efforts in providing school meals.
A further boost to the expansion of the school meals service was given by the accelerated programme announced in Circular 1629 on 15 May 1943: local education authorities were encouraged to aim at 75% provision of school meals and were offered free premises and equipment and the assistance of the Ministry of Works if required.
The Education Act, 1944 s 49 made compulsory provision that had previously been undertaken on a voluntary basis by local authorities.
The immediate post-war period saw a steady expansion of the school meals service subject to the delaying effects of labour and material shortages. Apart from occasional fluctuations caused by increased charges (such as in 1953) the annual number of dinners served had stabilised by the early 1950s just below 600 million.
As the pattern of supply and demand for school meals became established, provision became largely routine, resulting in the progressive decrease in importance of material on the main file, the introduction in 1955 of a registration system providing files on minor subjects and in 1963 a completely new system of subject classification which reflected the change of emphasis within the Ministry.