Group of school children at a cafeteria table.

A Well-Balanced Serving of School Food History — With a Side of Grassroots Reform

I have few memories of school lunches from my childhood. I do recall the small milk cartons and brown milky bubbles spilling out of them. I vaguely recall — or perhaps have learned from tumblr — that the meals were bland, carb-heavy, and overcooked; pastas and chicken nuggets with sides of yellow-orange vegetables. I have more vivid memories of homemade lunches: disdain for Dad’s jelly-laden PB&J sandwiches and resentment of Mom’s sliced bell pepper snacks.

I don’t know my parents’ reasons for packing lunches, but I suspect that thrift played a secondary role to nutrition and health concerns. (My mom was that mom who brought orange slices for the soccer team’s half-time snack rather than chocolate-coated, sprinkle-dipped Teddy Grahams.) Despite my childhood envy of those kids buying school lunches, Mom’s nutritional values stuck; throughout my undergraduate years, I opted to live and cook in an organic cooperative instead of eating from the cafeteria, rebelling against the “evil” corporate foodways I had recently learned about. In short, my path to nutritious eating has been continually shaped in opposition to school-provided meals.

Andrew Ruis’ new book Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunches in the United States promises to tackle this very conundrum: how did the school lunch program, begun in the hopes of both nourishing and educating American children about healthy food practices, become a popular antithesis of these very ideals?

Book cover, Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat (Rutgers University Press)

In his introduction, Ruis summarizes the history of school lunches as explicated by scholars like Janet Poppendieck and Susan Levine. The standard history of the topic begins with the National School Lunch Act of 1946:

Expected to address health and welfare concerns ranging from poverty and hunger to malnutrition and childhood obesity, saddled with incentives to rely heavily on processed foods and surplus commodities, increasingly dependent on private food and management companies, and chronically underfunded, the NSLP [National School Lunch Program] — despite its many successes — came to symbolize the failures of American nutrition policy.1

This is a familiar, even popular, narrative. In my undergrad years I assumed that the industrial-agricultural complex and corporate control of the American food system were to blame for our school food predicament. I only needed to look to the recent history of post-war processed food cultures and the Green Revolution for all the explanation I needed. Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat challenges such assumptions; Ruis argues that the failures of the NSLP can be found in the history of school lunches in the United States prior to the postwar enactment of federal investment in children’s school-time diets.

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)

Ruis begins his study in the late nineteenth century. From this historical perspective, the national school lunch funding initiatives of the New Deal and World War II appear not as starting points, but as moments when long-standing reform movements and national conversations suddenly bore fruit — or rather, grain-heavy meals on children’s plates. While other scholars of the NSLP write almost exclusively within the context of late twentieth-century welfare and public health, Ruis puts the history of school lunches into productive conversation with the development of public schools and federal government over the entire twentieth century.

The first chapter outlines the nineteenth-century roots of school lunches. The meat of the book is in the subsequent chapters: three case studies of early twentieth-century school meal programs in New York City, Chicago, and the rural Midwest. These illustrate the varied origins of school lunches across the nation. From there, Ruis devotes a chapter to the New Deal, when school meals became “the foundation of a demand-side solution to the ‘farm problem’ creating considerable tension between health promotion and agricultural protection, and between food security and farm sustainability.”2

In his final chapter, Ruis deftly explains the end of the New Deal and the impetus for federal support of school lunches that came out of the administrative and political chaos of World War II. The highlight of this chapter is his analysis of two distinct and competing lunch program bills debated in Congress, out of which the NSLP was crafted as a compromise. Through this vignette as well as the three case studies earlier in the book, Ruis accomplishes what many historians hope to do: he creates a sense of historical contingency, the idea that things might have turned out differently. Our current predicament was not inevitable.

One of the book’s insights is the link between the growth of compulsory school attendance laws and the practical need for school lunches to feed children. Along with mandatory schooling came the first questions about state responsibility for children’s well-being, distinct from the twentieth-century public health discussions circulating in the era of the NSLP. Practically speaking, the roots of government involvement in school lunches can be found in the Progressive-Era fears of food contamination and the movements around the 1904 Pure Food and Drug Act.

Ruis also reveals that for-profit lunches actually predate public programs, and school lunches were in part a response to the unhealthy, unsanitary food vendors near schools. Ruis’s central point is that the birth of local school lunch programs out of Progressive-Era reform movements endowed children’s meals with holistic ideas for greater societal uplift, community-wide nutrition, and a both morally and physically stronger body politic.

Seven children, ages 7-9, sit around a table, with hands folded in prayer. Bowls, cups and plates are on the table in front of them.
School lunch program, ca. 1936. (Roosevelt/National Archives)

However, I don’t think this book mounts as strong an argument about the balance/tension between nutrition and education in school meal history as the title suggests. Granted, the nutrition/education theme fits well into contemporary events and concerns that Ruis opens his book with: the obesity crisis, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign, The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, and local school food movements starting in 1995 with Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard that are now reaching new heights across the nation.

These and other trends provide a neat narrative conclusion: in the twenty-first century, Ruis argues, Americans are rediscovering and reclaiming Progressive-Era goals and tactics for combining nutrition and education in school lunches. “For the first time,” the book concludes, “national legislation has coupled school meal provision with targeted health and nutrition directives, something for which reformers in the early twentieth century fought unsuccessfully […] The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act is in many ways the legislation that early reformers hoped, but ultimately failed, to enact.”3

As compelling as this nutrition/education narrative is, I think Ruis’s book holds even larger lessons for twenty-first century Americans in the history it tells of local reform movements trying to create national change in U.S. foodways. Readers of Nursing Clio will notice and may be disappointed that Ruis neglects the history of the science of nutrition almost entirely, weakening his claims to engage with public health education history. However, I think he puts his analytical skills to good use when he instead explores the various organizational modes and strategies of early school meal programs, detailing how voluntary, grassroots movements were able to eventually craft municipal, state, and then federal policy.

Seven white woman stand around a kitchen table, with bowls and ingredients laid out.
Women volunteers preparing school lunch. Reedsville, West Virginia

Ruis explains that Progressive reformers assumed that once private efforts had created successful programs benefiting public health, municipal, county, and other state actors would take over their funding and operation. To this end, Ruis draws a brilliant contrast between Chicago, where the Board of Education essentially commissioned private charities to provide school lunches in order to avoid charges of municipal socialism, and New York, where voluntary organizations created a thriving, nutritious, multi-cultural school meal system that withered when transferred to the hands of a reluctant municipal government. The unique limitations, resources, and lack of infrastructure in rural areas conversely led the USDA to cooperate directly with private community actors to create a surprisingly widespread availability of school lunches.

From these examples, Ruis concludes that the successful translation of local programs to municipal, regional, and national scales “only succeeded when there was an agreement on the delineation of responsibility for those endeavors — and on the importance of those endeavors themselves.”4 Ruis continues this analysis through his discussions of government expansion, state power, national agricultural policy, and funding schemes in his chapters on the New Deal and World War II, but at times his story of nutritional education seems disconnected from this compelling train of thought.

Quibbles of emphasis aside, Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat succeeds in bringing a larger historical perspective to the problems of today’s school lunches. By reaching back to the Progressive Era, Ruis reveals a history that rhymes with our own state of affairs. Again, local movements strive to translate local successes to state and national stages; just as New York and Chicago pioneered city-wide school lunch programs, so too have Berkeley and Philadelphia leapfrogged national policy with experimental soda taxes, while countless smaller communities have banned vending machines from public schools. With excellent, short, readable — and assignable — studies like Ruis’s to guide us forward, perhaps I will feel comfortable foregoing my parents’ morning ritual of packing lunches for my own children.

Notes

  1. Andrew R. Ruis, Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017), 3. Return to text.
  2. Ruis, Eating to Learn, 112. Return to text.
  3. Ruis, Eating to Learn, 163-4. Return to text.
  4. Ruis, Eating to Learn, 62. Return to text.

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