A Brief History of School Lunch

Getty Images
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).

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

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9 Fascinating Facts About John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams—sixth President of the United States; son of our second POTUS, John Adams; and all-around interesting guy—was born on July 11, 1767 in a part of Braintree, Massachusetts, that is now known as Quincy. From his penchant for skinny-dipping to his beloved pet alligator, here are some things you might not have known about the skilled statesman.

1. John Quincy Adams was elected president despite losing both the popular and electoral votes.

The election of 1824, which saw John Quincy Adams face off against Andrew Jackson, is the only presidential election that had to be decided by the U.S. House of Representatives, as neither candidate won the majority of electoral votes. Despite losing both the popular and electoral vote, Adams was named president by the House.

2. John Quincy Adams loved morning cardio.

When it comes to personal fitness, early birds have an edge. Studies have shown that morning workouts can curb your appetite, prevent weight gain, and even help you get a good night’s sleep later on. Nobody understood the virtues of morning exercise better than Adams. As America’s foreign minister to Russia, Adams would wake up at five, have a cold bath, and read a few chapters from his German-language Bible. Then came a six-mile walk, followed by breakfast.

3. John Quincy Adams was an avid skinny-dipper.

As president, Adams got his exercise by taking a daily dip in the Potomac … naked. Every morning at 5:00 a.m., he would walk to the river, strip down, and go for a swim. Sadly, the most famous swimming anecdote likely never happened. The story is that when Adams refused an interview with reporter Anne Royall, she hiked down to the river while he was swimming, gathered his clothes, and sat on them until he agreed to talk. But modern historians tend to agree that this story was a later invention . That’s not to say, however, that Adams never talked about Royall. In his diaries he wrote “[Royall] continues to make herself noxious to many persons; treating all with a familiarity which often passes for impudence, insulting those who treat her with incivility, and then lampooning them in her books.”

4. John Quincy Adams enjoyed a good game of pool.

Adams installed a billiards table in the White House shortly after becoming president. The new addition quickly became a subject of controversy when Adams accidentally presented the government with the $61 tab (in reality he had paid for it himself). Nonetheless, political enemies charged that the pool table symbolized Adams’s aristocratic taste and promoted gambling.

5. John Quincy Adams was an amazing orator, but terrible at small talk.

Although Adams was nicknamed “Old Man Eloquent” for his unparalleled public speaking ability, he was terrible at small talk. Aware of his own social awkwardness, Adams once wrote in his diary, “I went out this evening in search of conversation, an art of which I never had an adequate idea. Long as I have lived in the world, I never have thought of conversation as a school in which something was to be learned. I never knew how to make, to control, or to change it.”

6. John Quincy Adams kept a pet alligator in a bathtub at the White House.

Adams had a pet alligator, which was gifted to him by the Marquis de Lafayette. He kept it in a tub in the East Room of the White House for a few months, supposedly claiming that he enjoyed watching “the spectacle of guests fleeing from the room in terror.”

7. When it came to politics, John Quincy Adams played dirty.

The presidential election of 1828—when incumbent John Quincy Adams got crushed by longtime rival Andrew Jackson—is famous for the mudslinging tactics employed by both sides. Adams’s side said Jackson was too dumb to be president, claiming that he spelled Europe “Urope.” They also hurled insults at Jackson’s wife, calling her a “dirty black wench” for getting together with Jackson before divorcing her first husband. Jackson’s side retorted by calling Adams a pimp, claiming that he had once procured an American girl for sexual services for the czar while serving as an ambassador to Russia.

8. John Quincy Adams is responsible for acquiring Florida.

Next time you find yourself soaking up some rays in the Sunshine State, take a moment to thank Adams. As Secretary of State, Adams negotiated the Adams-Onís Treaty, which allowed the U.S. to acquire Florida and set a new boundary between the U.S. and New Spain. That’s right: Walt Disney World might not have been built if it weren’t for the sixth president.

9. John Quincy Adams kind of hated being president.

Adams once reportedly stated, “The four most miserable years of my life were my four years in the presidency.” But even if he hated being commander-in-chief, Adams couldn’t bear to be out of the political loop for too long. After finishing his term as president, Adams served 17 more years in the House of Representatives, where he campaigned against further extension of slavery. In fact, he died shortly after suffering a stroke on the House floor.