Celebrating the Early History of the School Lunch Program

A History of the School Lunch Program

Part 1 of 3

By Antonia Demas, Ph.D.

“A garden for every child. Every child in a garden.”

“Old men bear the want of food best. Then those that are full-grown, Youths bear it least, Most especially children, And of them the most lively Are the least capable of enduring it.”
— Hippocrates

Hippocrates, father of medicine in the western world, recognized a direct relationship between diet and health.  He believed physicians should keep a record of food intake and elimination and that symptoms should be carefully noted and recorded.  Hippocrates observed that active, growing children require more food than more sedentary adults. Food was used as medicine in ancient times. How we feed our children is an indicator about how we value their development.


The school lunch movement first began in Europe in the 1700s when educators observed that many children were arriving at school each day hungry (Bryant:  1913).  Schools were not equipped to provide meals and hungry children had a difficult time concentrating on their studies.  It was through the efforts of individuals and private charities that the serious problem of malnutrition in children was first addressed.  Public education brought the haunting image of a starving child to the attention of society.  This is a reason the school lunch program began and has persisted, despite opposition.  In a pattern which began in Europe and was later repeated in the U.S., federal and local government authorities gradually took responsibility for school meals programs which began as private charitable efforts.

Count Rumford

The roots of the school lunch movement go back to a program begun in Europe by Benjamin Thompson, also known as Count Rumford, an American-born physicist, inventor, and statesman.  He lived in New England but sailed to England when the Revolutionary War broke out.  Due to his royalist contacts, the governor of New Hampshire did not trust him.  Rumford traveled widely in Europe eventually making his home in Munich, Germany.  There he applied himself to social reforms in education, sanitation, housing, land reclamation and use, hospitals, and care of the poor.  He mounted a campaign against vagrancy and in 1790 opened soup kitchens to feed unemployed workmen, and later, thousands of undernourished school children (ibid: 14).  Rumford gave soldiers a plot of land on which to grow crops to feed the poor, and the poor were expected to help maintain the gardens in exchange for free food.

Count Rumford is also credited with laying the groundwork through numerous experiments he performed for the study of heat transfer.  This work was instrumental in establishing the science of nutrition.  Through careful observations about food and heat, Count Rumford invented drip coffee pots, closed ovens, double boilers, and the use of coal as a cooking fuel.  One of Rumford’s inventions was “portable soup.”  This was basically a bouillon cube which could be used in soup kitchens with perhaps potatoes or barley added as a way of providing a healthful meal at a low cost.

Count Rumford’s empathy for the poor and malnourished made him one of the great philanthropists of all time.  He said, “To make vicious and abandoned people happy it has generally been supposed necessary first to make them virtuous.  But why not reverse the order?  Why not make them happy and then virtuous”? (Cane:  1962:137)

Rumford’s wife Marie was very helpful to the work that Rumford did feeding the poor nutritious meals.  Marie was the widow of French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier. Lavoisier helped make the scientific study of nutrition possible.  Through experiments Lavoisier was able to measure the heat produced by an animal and the heat produced by the combustion of carbon, and then compare these figures with the respective amounts of oxygen consumed and carbon dioxide produced.  Marie had been Lavoisier’s secretary, editor, and illustrator, intimately involved with his work.  Marie brought this background to the work that Rumford was doing in feeding the poor, which made the nutrition part of the project more scientific.

The efforts of Count Rumford helped spread the school feeding movement throughout Europe.  His assistance was sought in England, Scotland, Germany, France, and Switzerland, where he was able to help establish similar programs.  In London, for example, 60,000 people were fed daily from Count Rumford’s soup kitchen (Gunderson:  1971:1).  His goal was always to provide the best nutrition at the lowest price, the fundamental goal of all subsequent school feeding programs.


The French were progressive in their efforts to feed poor school children.  Attempts were first made by individuals and charities, but the government was able to take over the task.  Beginning in 1849, the French Government agreed to use surplus National Guard funds to benefit the community (Bryant:  1907:15).   One recognized need was schooling for the poor.  The funds were turned over to district authorities to use as a school fund called Caisses des Ecoles.  Clothing, books, medical attention and food were provided to poor children to enable them to attend school.  The value of this support was so apparent that in 1867 a school law was passed that contained a section authorizing the establishment of Caisses des Ecoles in every commune in France.  The Cantines Scolaires, or school lunch rooms, were seen as a vital part of the Caisses des Ecoles.  The Ministry of Public Education officially recognized the cantines by 1867 making possible their expansion to 464 different locations (ibid.:79).  In 1882, the compulsory primary education law included a provision making school lunch a mandatory part of the school day.

The cantines were managed by a committee that met monthly to make decisions about staffing and food purchases.  The menu was required to include meat or vegetable soup, and meat with a vegetable or macaroni.  The meat was a quality cut and the vegetables were fresh in the summer.

Poor families applied for free lunch on an annual basis.  Their application was reviewed and kept confidential.  The rich, the poor, and teachers ate together and there was no way to know who qualified for free lunch since uniform tickets were distributed to everyone.  Those who could pay would buy the tickets in advance and those who qualified for free lunch would be given the tickets ahead of time.  It was observed by an English visitor, “From the very first, the greatest care has been taken not to allow any loss of dignity to arise from the free feeding.  The fundamental principle of the whole management is the absolute innocence of the children” (Lancet:  1907:87). The problem of discrimination against those who qualify for free lunch has been a serious concern throughout the history of the school lunch movement.

Victor Hugo, the French writer, donated money beginning in 1865 to purchase foods for hot lunches at a nearby school.  Six years later The Society for People’s Kitchens in the Public Schools was established in Angers, France and provided meals at cost or for free to school children (Bryant: op.cit. : 93).


Italy began school feeding in San Remo in 1896 (ibid.:  138).  The Socialist majority of the San Remo city council managed to pass the program over the objections of the wary conservatives.  However, the program achieved such excellent results in terms of increased school attendance and academic progress that both parties agreed to use it as part of their political platforms.   The program was seen as a necessary part of education, not as charity for the poor, though the poor could eat for free.  The development and administration of the program was similar to the French system.  At first cold lunches consisting of cheese or sausage sandwiches were provided.  In 1904 a hot lunch of soup and bread, rice and meat, or cheese and pasta was prepared.  Olive oil was used since it was believed to be of high nutritive value.  The size of the portion was tailored to the size of the child.  By 1909 Italy was serving a greater percentage of its students than any other European country (ibid.:  142).


It was in England 1902, during the Boer war that the appalling consequences of inadequate early nutrition were made dramatically apparent.  Only two out of every five young men who tried to enlist in the armed forces were accepted, the majority were rejected due to malnourishment (ibid.:  22).  This created a scandal and much debate.  It was pointed out that a free education was useless if the child did not have the physical strength to receive it.  The British Parliament recommended that lunches be supported with private funds and that public monies be used only when donations were insufficient.  By 1906 the Provision of Meals Act was passed, transferring the responsibility of school feeding from charities to educational authorities.  In 1914 the University of London published a report showing how compulsory education laws had brought to the attention of educators, the thousands of needy children who might otherwise not be recognized (Bard:  1968:13).  The report acknowledged what the school lunch movement had insisted from the beginning — that the effect of education on a starving child is nil.

Other European Countries

During the mid 1800s, communities in many European countries were concerned about encouraging school attendance.  It was gradually recognized by parents, teachers, and town officials that a hungry child is not a good student, and food was a powerful draw to entice children to go to school.   These communities began to offer free or at-cost meals as a means of encouraging children to stay in school.  When education became compulsory, it became apparent that malnutrition was a serious problem.

By 1909 most European countries had taken official steps to put a school lunch program in place.  Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, England, France, Holland, and Germany had instituted programs which all met with success.  Spain and the Soviet Union were also beginning to implement lunch programs (Bryant:  op. cit.).


However, the United States was slow to develop a government-sanctioned school lunch program despite the fact that the need was apparent.  Mandatory schooling once again brought the image of the starving child into the public arena.  As in Europe, the first efforts were made by charitable organizations.  The earliest documentation of such efforts occurred in 1853 when the Children’s Aid Society of New York City opened an industrial school (ibid.: 18).  To promote attendance, they offered a free noon meal.  Often this meal was nutritionally inadequate, but without outside support there were not sufficient funds to improve the content of the meals.


It was through the efforts of Ellen H. Richards, one of the pioneers in the Home Economics movement, that school feeding received serious attention in North America.  Ellen Richards developed a Food Lab to educate the public about nutrition and worked to establish school lunch programs in Boston.   Ms. Richards developed many educational innovations concerning food education, nutrition, and children.

Schools should not teach how to make a living before they teach how to live” — Ellen Richards

Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards, founder of the home economics and environmental education movements, was born in Dunstable, Massachusetts in 1842.  Richards applied scientific principles to the way we live our lives and had a far-reaching influence and impact on improving conditions in society.  Her story deserves to be well known.

She was especially concerned about the diet of young children.  She knew that many children arrived at school hungry, often malnourished, without hope for a nourishing midday meal.  Until Richards became involved, janitors were the people responsible for selling school lunches.  The janitors knew nothing about nutrition but found they could increase their income by selling food to school children.  Often, they prepared meals in a dingy closet or basement with no regard to food value or sense of hygiene.  Richards argued that the meals should be prepared by trained personnel, that careful attention be given to nutritional content, that meals be prepared in a central location for distribution, and that schools provide proper facilities.  Once they saw their income threatened, the janitors tried to organize a protest.  They convinced store owners and restaurateurs to display signs in their windows saying, “Don’t Let Anyone Tell You What You Should Eat,” and, “I’d Rather Eat What I Want Than What Someone Says I Should” (Clarke 1973:136).

In 1894 Richards convinced the Boston School Committee the value of having professionals produce the meals and she was put in charge of running a pilot lunch program.  The city provided the space, equipment, and utilities.  Through lunch money collected from students, the program was to be self-sufficient.  Private donations provided for start-up funds and Richards operated out of the New England Kitchen.  Typical foods served were:  pea soup with crackers; potato chowder; sandwiches made with peanut butter or jam and one-half pint of milk (Bryant 1913:165).   Because of her leadership and the support she gained, Richards expanded the Boston school lunch program so that it was soon feeding 4,000 children a day (Clarke 1973:136).   The program continued to expand at a dramatic rate and was taken over by the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union after Richard’s death.

Richards saw the value of nutrition for children on many levels. She knew it affected not only their intellect, but also their general well-being and behavior. Food should be a fundamental right for every child in civilized society. Richards said, “I believe it will be held a crime in the twentieth century to lure young bodies and minds to college [school] under the pretense of education only to poison them slowly with bad food” (Clarke 1973:137). Just as the Europeans who started lunch programs in the 1800s realized, it is first necessary to provide basic needs to a child before they can be educated.

Richards reported in the Journal of Home Economics about an experimental program set up at the Winthrop grammar school in Boston, from January 1 to June 30, 1910 (Cronan 1962:13).  This school had a kitchen to be used in cookery classes.  The Home Economics class would prepare lunch for the entire school three times a week, with sandwiches and milk offered on the other two days.  An assistant was hired to help in the preparation.  Running the program in this manner made economic sense as well as providing the students with an educational opportunity.  A penny per meal was more than adequate to cover the expense.  Care was taken in selecting foods for nutritional as well as economic value.  For example, skim milk was used since it was less expensive than whole milk and the only nutrient sacrificed was fat.  By 1911 there were twenty-two schools in Boston with kitchens for cooking classes preparing school lunches based on this model.  One objective was to provide a third of the caloric requirement for the day in the lunch. The students who prepared the meals learned not just cooking skills, but also how to order the foods, how to plan cost-effective menus, nutritional concepts, and organizational skills.

New York City

In 1904, in a book entitled Poverty, Robert Hunter made the claim that in New York City alone between 60,000 and 70,000 children arrive at school each day hungry.  This claim created quite a stir, and a number of investigations took place to determine if Hunter’s claim was in fact true (Hunter:  1905).  Hunter explained the problem in this way:

It is utter folly, from the point of view  of learning, to have a compulsory school law which compels children, in that weak physical and mental state which results from poverty, to drag themselves to school and to sit at their desks, day in and day out, for several years, learning little or nothing. . . Guidance and supervision of the parents are impossible because they must work; the nurture is insufficient because there are too many hungry mouths to feed; learning is difficult because hungry stomachs and languid bodies and thin blood are not able to feed the brain.  The lack of learning among so many poor children is certainly due, to an important extent, to this cause (Hunter: 216-17).

Hunter proposed that schools should respond to the conditions of society that created poverty and attempt to educate the whole child.

These problems of child life are school problems.  They sum themselves up in the questions:  Are we to have the school ignore this larger work of education and remain a sort of dispensary of learning — an inflexible missionary of the three R’s?  Will it, because of financial embarrassment, be forced to give itself only half-heartedly and slovenly to these new problems of education, or is it to take, as its responsibility, the entire problem of child life and master it?  If the school does not assume this responsibility, how shall the work be done?  The reason for the present neglect of these vital matters is, it seems to me, ignorance rather than unconcern.  The city fathers do not appreciate the new social needs, and the teachers, as a class, are lacking in a knowledge of industrial history and social evolution.  They have not realized that the home is passing away and that, unless the school takes the child, he [she] is left to the street (Hunter:209).

In response to Hunter’s claims, socialist educator John Spargo gathered breakfast data from a sample of 12,800 children and found that 23% either did not eat anything for breakfast or were badly fed.  Usually a “meal” consisted of either coffee or tea, sometimes with a cracker or piece of bread or cake.   He also investigated the type of lunch the children ate.  Those who were given pennies by parents to buy food from street vendors bought pickles and bread, ice cream, or bananas and candy.  Some used the money for gambling rather than food.  He published his results in a book called The Bitter Cry of the Children (1906).  In discussing poverty’s young victims, Spargo said:

But whether a child’s hunger and privation is due to some fault of its parents or to causes beyond their control, the fact of its suffering remains, and its impaired physical and mental strength tends almost irresistibly to make it inefficient as a citizen.  Whatever the cause, therefore, of its privation, society must, as a measure of self-protection, take upon itself the responsibility of caring for the child (Spargo:119).

This publication led to further investigation by physicians of the nutrient value of different diets.  In 1906 physicians began to document cases of malnutrition in the public elementary schools.  As a result of these investigations, an early advocate of school lunch programs, Dr. William H. Maxwell, Superintendent of New York City Public Schools, in his annual report for 1908 stated, “Again I appeal to you, in the name of suffering childhood, to establish in each school, facilities whereby the pupils may obtain simple, wholesome food at cost price”. (Bryant: 147)

The following year the New York City School Board appointed a committee made up of physicians and social workers to determine if a three-cent lunch could be made self-supporting.  Dr. Maxwell’s persistence in citing the findings of Hunter and Spargo had paid off.  Two schools, Public School 21 in an Italian district on the lower East Side and Public School 51 in a largely Irish section on the West Side, were selected for the experiment.  After two years of the program operating, the Board formally sanctioned the program and encouraged expansion to other schools in the city.  The Board agreed to supply rooms, equipment, and utilities; the price of the lunch ticket would cover the food and personnel expense.  A physician was responsible for choosing the menu, selecting foods based on calorie requirements and ethnic customs.

It is important to note that this program was developed before the discovery of vitamins.  Consequently, most of the nutritional considerations were based upon food volume and calorie requirements.  It was known that foods such as candy provided empty calories, that carbohydrates provided energy, and that protein was essential for growth.

The fact that accommodations were made in some schools concerning cultural differences showed sensitivity and a real desire on the part of those selecting the foods to have children eat them.  This meant that different neighborhood schools had differing menus.  As with the programs in Boston, the goal was to provide one third of the daily caloric requirements at the noon meal.  The meals were usually hearty soups or stews with bread.  Other items were available at additional cost but there was a rule that the “extras” could not be purchased unless the main course had been eaten.  An example of a week’s menu in the Italian section is as follows:

Monday:  cabbage stew, two slices of Italian bread

Tuesday:  lima beans, pasta, two slices of Italian bread

Wednesday:  lentils, two slices of Italian bread

Thursday:  cocoa, meat and potato sandwich

Friday:  macaroni, two slices of Italian bread

A typical week for the Irish section:

Monday:  1/3 quart vegetable soup with meat stock, two slices of bread

Tuesday:  1/3 quart pea soup, two slices of bread

Wednesday:  rice pudding with milk, two slices of bread

Thursday:  cracked wheat and raisins, two slices of bread

Friday:  cocoa, cheese sandwich (Cronan: 16).

Hunter spoke to the need for ethnic sensitivity during a time when large numbers of people were immigrating to the United States:

The schools have not, however, made an effort to adapt themselves to the peculiar needs and abilities of the various classes and nationalities.  At present the same system of instruction prevails for the Italian, the Irish, and the Jewish children.  The historical background of their lives is given little or no consideration. . . Education should treat children as individuals, not as an indiscriminate mass who must be put through a certain routine, wholly regardless of the past of the child, and with little regard for its present or future in the life of the world.  There are no specifics arranged by educational experts which will apply equally well to children of all nationalities, of varying home conditions, of varying prospects in life, of varying prospects of work, of varying material resources.  In other words, each race and class have, in more or less degree, a certain peculiar essence or flavor of mind, discoverable by a discerning and wise teacher, which, if given its proper bent and lovingly cultivated, would yield to the world untold values in specially powerful aptitudes.  This is an aspect of education which is peculiarly important to America with its mixture of races (Hunter:  211-213).

Evaluation of the New York City pilot program after one year of operation demonstrated improved health on the part of those who participated in the school lunch program. Weight records were kept on 143 participants in the program and on 81 students who did not participate.  (Height and weight measurements were the standards used to measure nutritional health).  At the end of three months, the children eating the lunch had gained an average of 10.2 ounces, while the average gain of those not eating the lunch was 3.4 ounces (Bryant: 150).  However, the evaluation process also uncovered three problems which persist to this day in school lunch programs:

  1. equitable access — making certain the food is available without discrimination to all children who can benefit from the program.
  2. waste — making sure those who could benefit nutritionally from the food actually eat it and reducing food waste.
  3. cost — the N.Y.C. program operated at a deficit of one cent per lunch.  Financial subsidies have proven necessary to operate school lunch programs.

Despite these problems, the value of providing this service to school children was appreciated by educators, and by 1914 the school lunch program expanded to seventeen N.Y.C. schools feeding 24,087 students daily (Cronan:16).  A major public health breakthrough was made in the same year.  For the first time food handlers in the lunch program were required to have physical examinations, typhoid tests and small pox vaccinations.  The lunch program was gaining respectability as it grew and developed, and guidelines and standards were slowly put into place.  Recipes were recorded for future reference and analyzed in terms of perceived food value.


The Starr Center Association, a private philanthropic organization, began its service in Philadelphia in 1894, the same year Ellen Richards was running the lunch program in Boston.  The Starr Center Association began offering penny lunches in a poor school district in an attempt to fight the serious problem of malnutrition and then quickly expanded service to another needy school.  The Lunch Committee of the Home and School League (forerunner of the PTA) took over the task and enlarged the program to include nine schools in the city.

In 1909 a large, brand new high school for girls, called the William Penn High School, opened in Philadelphia.  Philadelphia did not have a lunch program and janitors or private caterers were the only ones to sell food to school children as a way to earn extra income.  The types of foods they served were candy bars and pickles.  The principal, Dr. Cheesman A. Herrick did not want the janitor or a private caterer serving meals.  Emma Smedley, who ran the program at William Penn for eleven years, gave the reason why, “Janitors or other individuals whose chief concern was profits, with little regard for the stomachs of their patrons, reaped large sums by catering to the appetites of school children.  The food sold was rarely wholesome and often actually unclean” (Smedley:  5).  Herrick convinced the Board of Education to establish a lunch program similar to Boston’s and run by a trained home economist.  As in New York and Boston, the School Board agreed to provide space, equipment, and utilities, but required that the program be self-sufficient.  Through good management and an innovative view of the lunchroom as an ideal laboratory for cooking classes, the William Penn High School was the first large school successful at self-sufficiency.

All students at William Penn High School were required to take one full year of “cookery classes.”  They learned how to can and preserve, and the foods they preserved were then used in the lunch program.  This was advantageous because the raw materials were bought by the lunch program and they were processed at no labor cost.  The cookery class used food purchased by the lunch program, which was able to take advantage of seasonal produce without high labor costs in processing them.  The students also cooked meals which were then sold to the teachers at cost.  This gave the students experience in cooking for larger groups (twelve or more teachers), rather than individual portions.  They were responsible for planning menus, figuring costs, making requisitions, and serving the meals.

Emma Smedley viewed the lunch program as a milestone in social progress.  She stated that:

“It is not to be a mere appendage of the educational system, it should be closely linked with the work of the school, one of its arteries through which the active blood of co-operation runs.  The departments with which it may be correlated are:  Domestic science, School gardens, Vocational classes, and the Medical department” (Smedley:  145-46).

Smedley also saw food as a way for people of different ethnic backgrounds to be exposed to healthy foods from other cultures.  Immigrants to the United States often could not find the same foods they were accustomed to in their native land, and sometimes their choices of new foods were not based on sound nutrition.  By using the school lunch program as a model of good nutrition which also adapts to healthful ethnic cuisine, an opportunity was made for the vital link of home-school communication.  Smedley believed that recipes should be sent home so the parents could use them and that schools should get into the business of selling lunches to the growing core of working mothers, thus providing the community with a valuable service.

Harvey Levenstein, in his book, Revolution at the Table, criticizes the early lunch program as a force to “Americanize the immigrant diet” (Levenstein: 118).  He claims that Jews and Italians were especially affected by either feeling ashamed of their crusty, non-American bread, or were unable to practice dietary religious customs surrounding food.  While this may have been the case in many urban school districts, the fact that efforts were made by some educators to use the lunch program as an interesting education model with ethnic sensitivity deserves praise.  These programs were developed, primarily by women, without sufficient funds.  They worked with children and food, in imaginative ways.  Perhaps they did not receive the widespread support they needed in order to flourish because the combination of women, children, and food traditionally has not been taken seriously by educators.  Based upon what we know about nutrition today many of the early lunch programs were far off the mark.  However, as the lunch program continues to evolve we still have a problem with some students being hungry. Of greater concern today is the problem of students consuming too many calories but not enough nutrients. Childhood obesity is a grave problem in the United States and escalating. Our children are still undernourished but for different reasons than in the early days of the school lunch program – they are overfed foods with empty calories. As concerns about child nutrition remain in the news, many of the ideas from the past are still valid. There is a lot we can learn by studying what worked in the past and not make the same mistakes.

“The tendency is to cultivate a spirit of refinement and cheer”

— Nellie Farnsworth

Rural Schools

One interesting problem of the movement was encountered in rural schools, which generally did not have facilities for kitchens or lunchrooms.  Usually, students lived too far to go home for meals.  Though they came to school with their dinner pails packed, the food would often be cold or frozen by the noon hour.

To solve this problem the stove used to heat the school became a stove that could heat the food.  An alternative which was more democratic since it ensured that everyone got something warm to eat, was to request that the students bring in an item from home for the common pot.  Those with greater means might bring in a piece of meat, others some carrots or potatoes; if the family could spare nothing, the child was still fed.  The older girls, under the supervision of the teacher, would then create a soup, stew, or cocoa, and all would partake equally.

In her book, The Rural School Lunch, 1919, Nellie Farnsworth stated that boys should participate as well as girls in preparation and clean-up of the lunch.  The dignity of work, especially work around the house, was stressed.  The social significance of eating together was valued:  “the tendency is to cultivate a spirit of refinement and cheer” (Farnsworth:  20).  Farnsworth realized an advantage frequently overlooked:

Useful knowledge is gained.  Besides having stories told at the table, the teacher may often direct attention to the foods that are served.  The history of rice, the manufacture of macaroni or the production of cocoa may be made most interesting as well as instructive.  Pupils may use the information thus gained in their compositions later on.  Besides such knowledge, the value of system, counting the cost and selection of foods may be impressed” (ibid.:  21-22).

The educational value of this approach to learning was valued by Farnsworth:  “The value of engaging students in hands-on, participatory learning ventures was recognized.  The spirit of co-operation will be destroyed unless each child is given a part to perform” (ibid:  23).

Other U.S. Programs

The School Lunch movement was spreading to major cities with varying degrees of success.  By 1910 the Chicago Board of Education put up $1,200 to test a lunch program in six city schools.  In Cincinnati teachers, along with the Civil League and Council of Jewish Women arranged to have penny lunches available.  St. Louis began a program in 1911.  Before World War I broke out, 29 cities in 13 different states and the District of Columbia all were experimenting with school feeding in some manner (Bryant: op. cit.: 181-2).

WWI to School Lunch Act of 1946


“An army marches on its stomach”



Napoleon recognized that if he did not feed his soldiers adequately, they would not be able to fight efficiently in wars. Ironically, this realization is directly related to the development of the school lunch program in the United States. For both WWI and WWII, a third of the young men who tried to enlist were rejected due to malnutrition. During WWI and WWII, the reason was malnourishment due to not enough calories. This revelation was embarrassing to the wealthiest country in the world, the U.S. Despite public outrage and lobbying efforts, it took time for the federal government to act in terms of feeding school children. As any teacher knows, a hungry child is not ready to learn.

Our military in recent times has rejected a third of the potential enlistees (which now include women) due to malnutrition stemming from the consumption of too many empty calories resulting in obesity and diet-related diseases that make them unfit to pass basic health standards or serve in combat.


The literature on the development of the school lunch movement from the period between World War I and the Depression is scanty, contradictory, and difficult to obtain.  There is a need for more in-depth historical research into the primary sources, a task which is beyond the scope of this history. It is noteworthy however that during both WWI and WWII, school children were engaged in the school garden movement as an educational innovation and as a means to provide fresh food to the war effort.

When the U.S. became engaged in World War II, the skills developed as part of the Victory Garden period during the previous war were put to good use. People believe that the World War II “Food for Freedom” gardening campaign was so successful (40% of all fruits and vegetables consumed during this time was produced in the 21 million Victory Gardens leading to the highest percentage of fruits and vegetables in our diet in recent times) because so many of the adults participating in the program had belonged to the U.S. School Garden Army during World War I.

Poster depicting children participating in farm work by planting a garden during World War I

When young American men tried to enlist for service in World War I in the United States fully one third were rejected because of diseases ascribed to malnutrition.  This was shocking in such a prosperous country.  The public outcry put pressure on authorities to address the problem of malnutrition in children (Mayer:  1972:609).  Again, it was recognized that good nutrition is essential to proper growth, development, and performance of young people.

Many high school administrators viewed school lunches as “necessary evils” and did not want to deal with the school personnel providing them (Cronan:  op. cit.:19).  Often, administrators would allow private caterers, who were motivated by profit, to come into the school and sell their food.  The quality of the catered foods varied widely, but generally was not of optimal nutritional value.  At times, compassionate teachers would bring food from home to ease the hunger of the less fortunate children who could not afford to buy from these vendors.

In 1918 a survey, conducted, by the New York Bureau of Municipal Research in 86 cities having a population of at least 50,000, determined that only 25% of the elementary schools were providing students with some sort of lunch.  However, 76% of the high schools surveyed were addressing this need, primarily because the lunch break provided too little time for high school students to walk home and return.  Generally, elementary students lived closer to school than the older students.  “Improvement of nutrition was not a part of the consideration” (Gunderson:  op. cit.:9).

During World War I many communities began to develop school lunch programs, primarily in economically depressed areas.  These were financially risky for schools to operate independently and were mainly run by private charities (Educational Facilities Laboratories:  1968:9).  Even though the ravages of malnutrition were seen in the young men who tried to enlist, the government was not ready to take measures that would recognize public health as important to national security.  Financial aid was available only through local school boards and private charities.  It was becoming clear that the federal government would have to assist financially if school feeding programs were to succeed.

The Great Depression (1930-1939)

The Depression, a period in the history of the United States when millions of Americans were affected by unemployment, caused under-nourishment and famine to become a serious threat to the nation.  It was imperative that the federal government come to the rescue.  In 1932, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, provided loans to cover labor costs for preparing school lunches in several Missouri towns, thus providing much needed jobs during the depression as well as enabling the school lunch program to grow.

The need for expansion of this program was apparent, and in 1933 the Civil Work Administration and Federal Emergency Relief Administration took over the administration.  By 1934, 39 states were participating, providing employment for 7,442 women (ibid: 11).

The period of the Depression was a time described as “the cruel paradox of want in the midst of plenty” (Bard: op. cit.: 14).  Hunger was widespread in America but ironically, there were agricultural surpluses.  Farmers could not find markets for their goods or, when they did, they were not paid enough to live on.  There was rampant unemployment and people had little money for food.  The danger of malnutrition became a concern of federal government.   The Agricultural Act of 1935, Public Law 320 {PL}, was passed on August 24, 1935, by the 74th Congress with two-fold intent:

  1. To help farmers by purchasing their surplus commodities, and
  2. To make those commodities available to children in the school lunch program

and to needy families.

The Secretary of Agriculture was given funds (30% of the gross receipts collected from duties under the custom laws) to purchase domestic surplus foods for distribution to school children and needy families.  This removed price-depressing surplus foods from the market and provided the schools with much needed assistance.  The school lunch program provided a democratic vehicle for distribution of surplus foods to the needy.  PL 320 required the cooperation of federal, state, and local governments to implement, and established a structure upon which future commodity distribution programs were built.

States hired a Director of Commodity Distribution who would be responsible for ordering the foods from the USDA, keeping records, seeing that the foods were properly warehoused, and acting as liaison with the federal government.  The foods generally were received in large lots and stored in a central warehouse.  From there they would be trucked to county warehouses and distributed to schools, families, or qualifying organizations.  Distribution guidelines for surplus commodities were as follows:

* Commodities used for school lunches must be prepared on the school premises,

* Commodities must not be sold or exchanged,

* Food purchases should not be discontinued or curtailed because of the availability

of surplus foods,

* The program must be operated on a not-for-profit basis,

* Children eligible for free or reduced lunch must not be discriminated against, and

* Records must be kept indicating all foods received, warehoused, and used.

A formal, written agreement was made with the state distributing agency before a qualifying group could receive any surplus foods.  Initially, allotment was made on the basis of the number of underprivileged children participating in each district.  This was quickly changed to include the total number of children participating in the program.  “The maximum quantity of any food that any school could receive was based upon a maximum quantity per child per month established by USDA” (Gunderson:  op. cit.:13).


In 1935 the WPA or Works Progress Administration (later called the Work Projects Administration) was created to provide work on public works projects for unemployed people.  School lunches fell under the Community Service Division and so were seen as a Public Works project.  Many unemployed women found jobs cooking and serving lunches through the WPA.  They also canned fresh fruits and vegetables which were provided through the surplus food program or came from school gardens in some districts.  Preserving perishable produce created an additional savings for the lunch program.  With wages paid by the WPA, surplus foods available from the federal government, and administrative assistance from the state, the lunch program was able to expand substantially throughout the 30’s.

Standardization of recipes and menus became more common, and the people hired to oversee the programs were generally trained in food service.  Meal quality and sanitation practices were greatly improved.  A WPA book entitled, Work Book for School Lunch Workers was published in 1941.  The introduction stated its purpose:  “The material in this book will help workers to do a good job.  It will not be necessary to use any other material.  New recipes and other information will be added to the book from time to time” (Federal Works Agency:  1941: introduction).

By 1941 the WPA was operating school lunches in every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.  Nearly two million lunches were being served daily and more than 64,000 people were employed to prepare them (Gunderson:  op. cit.:13).

In addition to the WPA, the National Youth Administration established in 1935, also employed youths to help with the lunch program.  Under adult supervision, unemployed or needy youths were able to assist with the lunch program by making tables, chairs and other necessary equipment for the lunchroom.  By 1941, 16,000 youths were so employed (ibid.:13).

The support from all of these programs led to phenomenal growth of the lunch program.  Six million children were being fed daily by 1942 with donated foods reaching 92,916 schools (ibid.:13).  Educators reported better attendance at school and school nurses noted weight gain among the students.  The dramatic gains of the program were soon offset by the devastating effects of World War II.

The growth of the lunch program from two million to six million in one year’s time is indeed phenomenal.  My source for these figures is one that has been used in much of the literature reviewed; a USDA publication by Gordon W. Gunderson, entitled, The National School Lunch Program, Background and Development.  (See bibliography).

World War II

The extraordinary growth of the lunch program which had dramatically increased to serve six million students by 1942, came too late to significantly affect the health of the eighteen year old trying to enlist for military service.  As in World War I, fully one third of them were rejected due to malnutrition.  In 1941, U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Thomas Parran, said :

We are wasting money trying to educate children with half-starved bodies.  They cannot absorb teaching.  They hold back classes, require extra time of teachers, and repeat grades.  This is expensive stupidity, but its immediate cost to our educational system is nothing compared to the ultimate cost to the nation.  Something like nine million school children do not have an adequate diet for health and well-being.  Malnutrition is our greatest producer of ill health.  Like nearly fresh fish, a nearly adequate diet is not enough.  A plan to feed these children properly would pay incalculable dividends (Cronan:  op.cit.:18-19).

The war effort created numerous jobs in the defense industry, draining workers from the school lunch effort.  Food shortages developed which dried up the supply of surplus foods for the schools.  The WPA was forced to fold in 1943.  Any surplus foods available were sent to feed the armed forces and the allies.  The lunch program had to be cut back during the war years even though it had come to be highly valued.  By April of 1944 the number of children being served had decreased to serve five million (Gunderson:  op. cit.:13).

In July of 1943 Congress amended Section 32 of the Agricultural Act of 1935 to provide school districts directly with funds for implementation of their school lunch programs.  Also, Public Law 129 was put into place authorizing the use of the funds from Section 32 (not in excess of $50 million) to maintain the school lunch program from July 1, 1943, to June 30, 1944.  The funds were to be used solely for the purchase of food.  None could be spent on labor or equipment.  In 1944, Public Law 367, passed by the 78th Congress, expanded the scope of the program to include child care centers, specifying that two percent of the funds in each state were to be used in the child care centers.  After two years of level funding in 1944 and 1945, the need for expansion was so great that in December of 1945, Congress added an additional $7.5 million to the appropriation.  6.7 million children were being served by April of 1946 (ibid.:14).

After World War II, General Lewis Blaine Hershey, Director of Selective Services, made a statement linking malnutrition with the risk to national security.  Hershey told Congress that the nation sustained 155,000 casualties in the war because of malnutrition (Bard:  op. cit.:15).  The nation had seen evidence of the scourge of malnutrition during two World Wars and the time was right for federal legislation to address the problem. Next month’s blog will describe the federal government making the School Lunch Act become an Act of Congress in 1946.

Part 2 will be published on July 1, 2023, Part 3 on August 1, 2023


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