A Brief History of School Lunch

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Getty Images

Hungry? Just grab a tray and chow down on a carton of chocolate milk, a sloppy joe, and some green beans. It’s a ritual shared by millions of American schoolchildren each year in cafeterias around the country. But though the words "school" and "lunch" seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly, the phenomenon has only really been around since the late 19th century.

School lunch has its roots in Germany, where as early as 1790, an American-born man known as Count Rumford began mass feedings for poor kids who worked part-time in exchange for schooling and food. (Rumford had fled the United States during the Revolutionary War because he supported King George.) The soup that Rumford served was made from super-cheap ingredients—think barley, potatoes, and sour beer—and was the beginning of the soup kitchen as we know it.

But the idea of feeding kids at school never really caught on in the early U.S. Instead, kids were expected to bring their own food to school or head home to eat. That was a problem for some: In the United States, poverty accompanied the huge waves of immigrants who flooded the nation during the 19th century. By the 1870s, an estimated 12 percent of school-age children in New York City were homeless, and those who did have homes were often shoved into filthy tenements. Child poverty became a scourge, and as child labor laws were tightened, more children would flood into the nation’s schools, often without enough to eat.

Poverty finally became a national issue when a sociologist named Robert Hunter published a groundbreaking book in 1904. Appropriately titled Poverty, the book described the conditions endured by working-class people in Chicago and New York. Galvanized by his descriptions of poor families and children, many of them immigrants, Progressive-Era reformers began to brainstorm ways to get kids the resources they needed. This was serious business: In a 1903 article in The School Journal, an anonymous author wrote that healthy school lunches were nothing less than a chance to improve "the physical vigor of the urban population." Earlier small-scale programs in cities like Boston and Philadelphia had shown that school lunches could have great effect.

Help for kids finally arrived in the form of public-private partnerships between social workers, charitable institutions, and schools themselves. For example, the Women's Educational and Industrial Union provided hot lunches throughout Boston at the turn of the 20th century to an average of 5500 students each day. Their 1913 annual report describes sample menus including beef and barley soup, celery and nut salad, creamed eggs, and orange marmalade or jam sandwiches.

Soon, “school feeding,” as it was then called, began in earnest. Most school lunch programs were initially offered by charitable organizations, but school districts themselves quickly realized that when kids had food, they were more likely to stay in school and perform well in class. Lunchrooms and cheap lunches became a school staple.

But school lunch was more than a hot meal—it was a chance to educate immigrant children on how real Americans ate. According to one 2003 book, early advocates hoped that school cafeterias would “persuade children to abandon the diet of their parents for a new American cuisine.” Classrooms had civic classes; cafeterias had “American” foods with fewer spices and plenty of milk. As more and more kids began to rely on school lunch, especially during the Great Depression, menus became a way to unify future generations of Americans.

Eventually, school lunch became seen as a way to “eat democracy”—a democracy that involved scarfing down USDA-supplied surplus foods like dairy products and wheat. (When the USDA took over administration from the War Food Administration, 60,000 schools in 20 states received shipments of donated food.) As John Vysnauskas, a priest who taught at Holy Cross in Chicago, told the Congressional Subcommittee on Appropriations in 1947: "In our schools, we have no longer children of merely Lithuanian descent. They are pure Americans. There is no language but the English language used in these schools. ... Our children eat democracy and have learned to associate in a democratic way with children from … other schools."

In 1946, this lunchroom democracy became the law of the land when the National School Lunch Act was approved. The program made school lunch a permanent fixture in American schools. Today, the Act offers free and reduced-price lunch and milk (and even breakfasts in some cases) to more than 31 million kids nationally. In 2010, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act updated the school lunch program for the first time in more than 30 years to make sure menu options are in line with current nutritional guidance, with an emphasis on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and protein. (Forget those white-bread sandwiches: The new rules stipulate that grain items must include 50 percent or more whole grains by weight or have whole grains as the first ingredient.)

These days, school lunches still act as an arbiter of kids' tastes. But mystery meat and bland, Americanized food is becoming more and more unusual as school districts embrace diverse palates. Things like salad bars and ethnic cuisine options are increasingly making the hot lunch of yore seem all but obsolete. Still, the concept of school lunch remains—an institution as American as apple pie (and, in some cases, almost as delicious).

On This Day in 1953, Jonas Salk Announced His Polio Vaccine

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Getty Images

On March 26, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk went on CBS radio to announce his vaccine for poliomyelitis. He had worked for three years to develop the polio vaccine, attacking a disease that killed 3000 Americans in 1952 alone, along with 58,000 newly reported cases. Polio was a scourge, and had been infecting humans around the world for millennia. Salk's vaccine was the first practical way to fight it, and it worked—polio was officially eliminated in the U.S. in 1979.

Salk's method was to kill various strains of the polio virus, then inject them into a patient. The patient's own immune system would then develop antibodies to the dead virus, preventing future infection by live viruses. Salk's first test subjects were patients who had already had polio ... and then himself and his family. His research was funded by grants, which prompted him to give away the vaccine after it was fully tested.

Clinical trials of Salk's vaccine began in 1954. By 1955 the trials proved it was both safe and effective, and mass vaccinations of American schoolchildren followed. The result was an immediate reduction in new cases. Salk became a celebrity because his vaccine saved so many lives so quickly.

Salk's vaccine required a shot. In 1962, Dr. Albert Sabin unveiled an oral vaccine using attenuated (weakened but not killed) polio virus. Sabin's vaccine was hard to test in America in the late 1950s, because so many people had been inoculated using the Salk vaccine. (Sabin did much of his testing in the Soviet Union.) Oral polio vaccine, whether with attenuated or dead virus, is still the preferred method of vaccination today. Polio isn't entirely eradicated around the world, though we're very close.

Here's a vintage newsreel from the mid 1950s telling the story:

For more information on Dr. Jonas Salk and his work, click here.

Drunken Thieves Tried Stealing Stones From Notre-Dame

Notre-Dame.
Notre-Dame.
Athanasio Gioumpasis, Getty Images

With Paris, France, joining a long list of locales shutting down due to coronavirus, two thieves decided the time was right to attempt a clumsy heist—stealing stones from the Notre-Dame cathedral.

The crime occurred last Tuesday, March 17, and appeared from the start to be ill-conceived. The two intruders entered the cathedral and were immediately spotted by guards, who phoned police. When authorities found them, the trespassers were apparently drunk and attempting to hide under a tarpaulin with a collection of stones they had taken from the premises. Both men were arrested.

It’s believed the offenders intended to sell the material for a profit. Stones from the property sometimes come up for sale on the black market, though most are fake.

The crime comes as Paris is not only dealing with the coronavirus pandemic but a massive effort to restore Notre-Dame after the cathedral was ravaged by a fire in 2019. That work has come to a halt in the wake of the health crisis, though would-be looters should take note that guards still patrol the property.

[h/t The Art Newspaper]

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