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 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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Remembering the Deadly London Beer Flood of 1814

London's Horseshoe Brewery
London's Horseshoe Brewery
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In the fall of 1814, one of history's most bizarre disasters befell London when a 15-foot wave of beer flooded an entire neighborhood and left eight people dead.

The Horse Shoe Brewery on Tottenham Court Road in London boasted a massive 22-foot-tall vat that held some 160,000 gallons of dark porter. On October 17, 1814, one of the metal hoops meant to secure it snapped, and the wooden vat succumbed to the immense pressure of all that fermenting brew. The gushing beer smashed open the brewery's other vats, resulting in a raging sea of beer that burst forth from the building.

Over 1 million liters of beer flooded out onto the road and raced through the St. Giles neighborhood. The area was crammed with crowded slums, and many inhabitants couldn't escape in time. According to The Independent: "Hannah Banfield, a little girl, was taking tea with her mother, Mary, at their house in New Street when the deluge hit. Both were swept away in the current, and perished."

Others who were gathered in a cellar for a wake were caught by surprise by the flood and drowned in beer. A wall of a nearby pub crumbled and crushed a 14-year-old girl who was standing next to it. In total, eight people perished in the accident.

Unsubstantiated rumors persist that rowdy locals brought pots and pans to the river of beer in an attempt to round up free drinks. In reality though, the citizens of St. Giles were lauded in the press for their help with the rescue efforts, keeping quiet in the aftermath in order to help listen for the screams of their trapped neighbors.

This story has been updated for 2020.