School Meals & Nutrition Policy in the U.S.


A review of Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: School Meals and Nutrition Policy in the United States, 1900-1946, by Andrew R. Ruis.

To paint in broad generalizations, few if any have good things to say about the food served in public schools. Andrew R. Ruis, in Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: School Meals and Nutrition Policy in the United States, 1900-1946, examines why this is the case through his history of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). This dissertation addresses a major gap in the scholarship on the NSLP. Despite the prominence of educational and nutritional debates at both local and national levels, scholars have given little attention to the NSLP in terms of its place within the history of public health in America. Historians have examined the development of the NSLP, but have ignored how local programs grew into a national act that provided lunch for ninety-nine percent of public schools.

Ruis places his story within the broader context of the changing nature of public health in the United States. As the limitations of the germ theory confronted public health officials in the early 1900s, they shifted their focus from the prevention of acute infectious diseases like cholera through aggressive sanitation projects to enhancing bodily health so the individual could resist chronic infectious diseases like tuberculosis. Public health officials posited that one way to improve the social body was through improved nutrition.

Chapters One and Two examine the epidemic of malnutrition, highlighted by WWI draft physicals that found far too many American men ineligible for military service because of their poor constitutions. At the same time, malnourished children within the public school system failed to achieve basic academic standards. As the science of nutrition developed during the early 1900s, experts bolstered its importance by highlighting the epidemic of malnutrition facing Americans. This formed the context in which local and national reforms strove to bring the science of nutrition and hot lunches to public schools.

Chapters Three and Four juxtapose case studies taken from New York City and Chicago. In 1908, private charities and women’s organizations started New York’s first school lunch program for predominantly Irish immigrant children in the neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. Soon thereafter, the New York School Lunch Committee (NYSLC) was established to expand the program. A special characteristic of this initiative was that it catered to the tastes of children from different ethnic backgrounds. They fed Irish children barley rice soups, Italian children minestrone, they hired Jewish cooks in Jewish neighborhoods and avoided meat dishes on Fridays to adhere to Catholic practices. The program grew, feeding 24,000 children during the 1913-14 school year. In 1913, Theodore Roosevelt, having heard of the program, stopped by for an unexpected visit to a Lower East Side school for a two-cent lunch. Impressed, he promised to bring attention to the NYSLC and the importance of affordable school lunches. It was not until the Depression and the subsequent New Deal funding, however, that the Board of Education wholeheartedly embraced a citywide school lunch program.

In Chicago, the poor health of elementary students brought the importance of school lunch programs to the attention of the city’s Board of Education. There was much resistance to providing free food to children using taxpayers’ money because there was concern that schools were sites of education, not social welfare. All issues of socialism were circumvented in 1911 when the Chicago School Extension Committee began selling lunches at the cost of a penny. The main drawback was that the program focused on operating the lunch service at an “at cost” level, relegating nutritional concerns to secondary importance. This pattern would repeat as the federal government established a national school lunch program in the 1940s.

Chapter Five highlights the challenges facing rural schools. Despite the image of the American heartland and breadbasket as the pillar of a healthy environment, the reality was that rural health standards and infrastructure were poorly developed. From the 1910s, education reformers pushed to improve rural schools that had extremely poor facilities and not surprising equally low levels of achievement. Part of this effort also included a focus on teaching health and nutrition.

Chapter Six, the final case study of the dissertation, details how New Deal era relief programs were parlayed into a national school lunch program. When the Depression hit, people bought less food, so agricultural profits dropped, making the cost of getting food to the market prohibitive. This left many farmers unable to sell their goods. The federal government then struggled to invigorate the rural economy through various forms of legislation. In 1946, the federal government passed the National School Lunch Act that promised to feed children nutritious meals and at the same time encourage the consumption of surplus agricultural products. The government would purchase surplus commodities, keeping them from saturating the market and then redirect these products to schools in need.

Due to lobbying from various organizations like the American Farm Bureau Federation, the draft of the NSLA prioritized the disposal of surplus foods in the form of school lunches, at the same time, the bill’s requirements for nutritional education were cut. In the end, (and the best line of the dissertation), Ruis concludes, “the NSLA was itself a rather malnourished health act” (255).

Recent reforms are still grappling with these issues: President Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act put nutritional education into the school lunch program. While this is undeniably progressive, the USDA maintains the standards for what is considered healthy enough for sale in public schools, suggesting that issues of agricultural business and economy will continue to influence the politics of nutrition in our public schools for the near future.

Alexander Bay
Department of History
Chapman University

Dissertation Information

University of Wisconsin-Madison. 2011. 333pp. Primary advisor: Judith Leavitt.

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