Two white girls eat sandwiches at a table.

The Gastropolitics of School Lunch

For Americans of a certain age, the term school lunch evokes the worst elements of institutional dining: soggy pizza, mushy vegetables, plastic sporks. Or perhaps it is the nutritional inadequacies that are most salient in our collective imagination: after all, the Reagan administration (according to popular legend) once classified ketchup as a vegetable.1 Passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010 and the numerous efforts to make school meals fresher, healthier, and tastier notwithstanding, many Americans continue to think of school food as little better than prison food.

So it is perhaps difficult to conceive of a time — that time being about 100 years ago — when school lunches were a symbol of modernity, an elegant mechanism by which governments ensured the health and welfare of future citizens by assuming from parents the burdensome task of feeding children during the school day. School lunches, in other words, were revolutionary. “The old-fashioned lunch box for school children seems likely to be extinct,” claimed a Seattle journalist in 1920. “Instead, [children] line up at noon and file past a cafeteria counter, each carrying a tray, and select with care the articles of food that appeal to them.”2

Similarly, in Chicago: “Taking its place in the museum of the out-of-date, along with the old oaken bucket, the horsehair sofa, and the patent leather buggy, is the old tin dinner pail that accompanied a child to school. In its place in the schoolhouse is the cafeteria tray loaded with a balanced meal of warm food and milk.”3

Black and white photo of two children in coats and pants, one child wearing a cap, and each carries a metal lunch pail.
Children carrying their school lunches in pails in the 1920s. (Library of Congress | Public Domain)

But whether school meals are generally considered revolutionary or revolting has less to do with their actual substance than what they represent in the social imagination. School meals, rather, have long served as a critical venue for gastropolitics.4 Food is an extraordinarily flexible system for meaning making, representing both the constant need for basic sustenance and the expression of social identity and values — what you eat is less what you are than who you are. School food only extends this semiotic potential, as schools are a key intersection of the state, the home, the market, and civil society.5

The metaphoric lunch tray, with its distinct compartments empty with possibility, can be loaded up with everything from the most mundane of daily rituals (food as biological requirement) to the grandest of our imagined worlds (food as an expression of our values, identity, and aspirations). School meals are thus a highly contested site of political negotiation and civic debate — and they always have been.6

Poster, at the top it says "One Hot Dish - meat vegetable" with a picture of a bowl of steaming soup; underneath that is a picture of a sandwich cut in two, with "Sandwich" written next to it; under that, a drawing of an apple, with "fruit" written next to it; and under that, a glass of milk, with "Milk" written next to it.
Poster promoting good eating habits in school from 1936-41. (Library of Congress | Public Domain)

Whether we regard children as the beneficiaries of an enlightened public health program or the victims of industrialized mass feeding, school meals provide a context in which to discuss a range of social and political issues, from the composition of a proper meal to national security. As a concept, feeding children — especially poor children — in schools has long been popular across the political spectrum, but the implementation of that concept raises more vexed issues. It is those issues, and the ways in which they were addressed, that I explore in my new book on the origins of school meals in the United States.

Perusal of current news sources reveals widespread and contentious discussion of school meals: about the role of school meals in the reduction of hunger and malnourishment; about the relative benefits of home-packed versus school meals; about schoolchildren’s generally poor dietary choices and nutritional health; about the school lunch labor force that has been reduced to reheating pre-prepared meals; about the quality and impact of school meal nutrition standards and other federal requirements; about the quality of the food served; about how much of the food served in school meals children actually eat; and about numerous ways that school meals could be improved nutritionally, logistically, environmentally, and gastronomically.

Indeed, similar discussions were common over a century ago, when meal programs were first established at schools across the country. This contiguity of discourse reflects the fundamentally social process through which understanding of nutrition is constructed. Which foods are healthful (or not), what constitutes a meal, how foods should be prepared and consumed, and even what counts as “food” are not empirical questions to be answered in labs or clinics but social questions continually addressed through the combination of technoscientific, cultural, political, and historical processes.

Poster of a white boy throwing a baseball, while a white girl crouches in the background waiting to catch it. A photo of a boy with a lunch tray in front of him is superimposed over the bottom right corner. "Every Child Needs a Good School Lunch" is written on the poster, with "School Lunch Program" across the bottom
“Every child Needs a Good School Lunch” (National Archives | Public Domain)

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the National School Lunch Program, the most extensive and longest running children’s health program in U.S. history. Despite all the criticism of American school meal programs — much of it deserved — they remain enormously popular. The program serves more than 30 million children every year. Students consume as many as half of their annual meals at school, and a school meal may represent more than half of a student’s daily caloric intake. For many poor children, the food served at school is all that prevents serious malnourishment and outright starvation.

For seventy years, however, schools participating in the National School Lunch Program have also struggled to provide appetizing, nutritious, low-cost meals that meet children’s health needs and satisfy their tastes and preferences. The student who today avoids the school cafeteria because “they have, like, fruits and vegetables,” is not so different from the student who, more than a century ago, ate a dozen crullers for lunch despite it being “bad for the health.”7

Expected to address health and welfare concerns ranging from poverty and hunger to misbehavior, poor academic performance, and childhood obesity, saddled with incentives to rely heavily on processed foods, surplus commodities, and pre-prepared meals, deeply dependent on private food and management companies, and chronically underfunded, the National School Lunch Program — despite its many successes — has come to symbolize the fraught nature of American nutrition policy.

Photo of several raised beds and a greenhouse in the background. Three young children walk through the paths between the raised beds.
In the school garden. (Lauer/Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0)

Yet school meals, thanks in large part to the efforts of Michelle Obama and passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, are also experiencing something of a renaissance. Cooperative cafeterias and school gardens, implemented in response to the ravages of the Great Depression and wartime rationing, are once again growing in popularity. Anti-junk-food campaigns, ethnically tailored menus, and many other nutrition initiatives from the past are finding renewed support in modern schools. The Farm to School Program is helping schools create purchasing agreements with local providers, increasing access to fresh foods and building community involvement. And perhaps most importantly, free meals are widely available for those who need them most, and nutrition health and education directives have been explicitly included in the National School Lunch Program.

It is too soon to know the full extent of the impact these developments will have on children’s health and welfare, but the history of school meals suggests that all of them will be important for the success of the program. While children and the schools that educate them face different problems today than a century ago, the need for supplemental feeding and nutritional improvement is no less pressing. Yet history suggests that without development of a system that integrates eating and learning, that values skilled labor and community involvement, and that privileges children’s health over agricultural surplus disposal, progress in public health nutrition will be limited at best.

Notes

  1. The story is … not exactly apocryphal — it’s more like truthy — but it remains the most widely known “fact” about American school meals. Of course, everyone knows that ketchup is a fruit, not a vegetable. Return to text.
  2. Frank C. Doig, “School Cafeterias in Seattle,” American City 22, no. 2 (1920): 123. Return to text.
  3. “Hot Lunch Helps Young America Get His Lessons: Five Cents Buys a Meal at City Schools,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 17 October 1930, 24. Return to text.
  4. The basic concept of gastropolitics comes from Arjun Appadurai, “Gastro-Politics in Hindu South Asia,” American Ethnologist 8, no. 3 (1981): 494–511. However, I use the term here somewhat more loosely. Return to text.
  5. I explore these issues in detail in A. R. Ruis, “‘The Penny Lunch Has Spread Faster Than the Measles’: Children’s Health and the Debate over School Lunches in New York City, 1908–1930,” History of Education Quarterly 55, no. 2 (2015): 190–217. Return to text.
  6. For more on this history, see Susan Levine, School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program (Princeton University Press, 2008); Janet Poppendieck, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (University of California Press, 2010); A. R. Ruis, Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States (Rutgers University Press, 2017). Jennifer Gaddis is also working on a book which addresses key aspects of this issue. Return to text.
  7. Katharine Mieszkowski, “School Cafeteria’s Fruits and Vegetables Vie with Food Trucks’ Sweet and Salty Treats,” New York Times, 10 September 2011; “High School Lunch Room: Pupils to Be Hygienically Fed at Low Prices,” New Haven Evening Register, 8 November 1897, 1. Return to text.

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