School food is often framed as a “food fight” between a host of contenders: federal and state governments, policy advocates, public health officials, the food industry, teachers, parents, and children themselves. In his fascinating, new book, Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States—out this July from Rutgers University Press in their Critical Issues in Health and Medicine series—Andrew Ruis reminds us that school food debates stretch back more than a century.
Andrew is a researcher in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and a fellow in the Department of Medical History and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison—and he was kind enough to chat with me over email about his new book.
Emily: To start, how did you come to this project? What got you interested in school lunch?
Andrew: School meal programs, at a fundamental level, are public health programs, and they emerged in the United States in response to growing concerns about the health and well being of poor children. The National School Lunch Program, which began in 1947 and continues today, is the longest-running public health program for children in U.S. history. Yet when I began work on this project about 10 years ago, historians of medicine and public health were paying very little attention to issues of food, diet, and nutrition. And school meals, though they have become a somewhat mundane feature of modern schooling, are extraordinarily complex systems. I knew that at some point in the past, they were revolutionary, and I wanted to know more about how they became an integral part of so many children’s lives.
E: I like the title of your book, Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat, especially after I read the introduction, where you explain: “Health and education authorities had envisioned a national program in which children would eat to learn but also learn to eat, yet they managed to secure only the former” (p. 10). How did you come to this pithy summation of the origins of school lunch programs?
A: School meal programs first began in the United States in part because so many teachers recognized that hungry, malnourished children could not fully benefit from schooling. They also connected many of the problems exhibited by schoolchildren—inattentiveness, misbehavior, poor academic performance, lethargy, and so on—to a lack of sufficient (or sufficiently nourishing) food. So in that sense, early meal programs were feeding children so that they could learn. But most advocates also recognized that supplemental feeding without nutrition education, coordinated health and social work, and other measures was at best a band-aid, because children needed to eat well outside of school as well. Thus, it wasn’t enough for students to eat to learn, they also had to learn to eat, so that they would develop and maintain good nutrition well after leaving school.
E: Your book tells the longer history of school lunch, in the decades before the passage of the National School Lunch Program in 1946. And your key case studies are telling local, municipal stories rather than the federal ones you emphasize in later chapters. I so appreciated the scale of this history. You calculated that at least 46 cities already operated regular lunch programs in at least some of their schools by 1913. Figuring that out must have required an intensive research process. What archival work did you undertake in order to tell this complex set of local histories?
A: The research for this project was extremely difficult, due in part to the fact that no early meal programs kept consistent records and in part to the fact that what records were kept were often scattered, destroyed, or lost. School board and superintendent reports provided something of a backbone, local newspapers were a good source of anecdotes and lived experience, and some private organizations (e.g., women’s clubs, philanthropic groups, etc.) kept records as well. But the process was very much one of collecting disperate pebbles from which I might be able to build a small hill. But the book was also shaped by what I could find. I was lucky in that New York City and Chicago both had fairly good records, and the two cities—representing the two largest school districts in the country—happened to provide an excellent contrast in approaches and concerns. However, I really wanted to write about southern meal programs, given how important the southern states were to the passing of the National School Lunch Act, but I just couldn’t find enough material to build a case study around a southern city or state. Time and again, I would contact or visit a collection only to find that their earliest school lunch materials dated to the mid- or late-1930s, which was far too late for understanding how local programs began.
E: You and I have been thinking a lot about the multi-disciplinary intersection of the histories of medicine and nutrition with food studies and food history. Your book shines well in this space, as it examines hallmark challenges of public health and social medicine: about the divides between public, governmental intervention and the private rights and responsibilities of individuals. Food studies and food history folks will love this book not only for its historical assessment of school lunch programs and policies, but also for the culinary details you include. For example, my favorite chapter is on the lunch programs in rural, one-room schoolhouses in the upper Midwest. You write of beans cooked on an outdoor stove, potatoes baked in the ash pan of the sole indoor stove that heated the school, and meals heated up via the “pint-jar method:” individual servings placed in jars in a rack and heated on the stove in a boiler with a little water. How do you think about the intersection(s) of the histories of medicine and nutrition with food studies and food history, in this book and in your ongoing research agenda?
A: I was trained as a historian of medicine, but this book benefited substantially from work in food studies and history, particularly work on immigrant food cultures and changes in American foodscapes from the late-19th century to the Second World War. Yet I have always been surprised by how little overlap there is between the history of medicine and the history of food, diet, and nutrition. That is starting to change, but I think there are a few key intersections where considerably more work could be done. One area is in the history of understandings of nutrition or of what it meant for a food/diet/cooking technique/etc. to be healthful. That is, of course, partly about medico-scientific theory, but it is also about food traditions and cultures and the ways in which different people at different times understood health and well-being with respect to food. Another area where more fruitful overlap could yield critical scholarship is in the cotemporal rise of big food, big pharma, and big science. If there are any grad students reading this who are looking for a project, contact me. I’ve got a list of possible topics as long as my arm!
E: That’s great news! Beyond these intriguing and important intersections—and the rich potential for more research in this area—I also wanted to discuss how you emphasize the complex nature of nutrition knowledge itself, which you argue is a “fundamentally social process,” rooted in variable understandings of “which foods are healthful (or not), what constitutes a meal, how foods should be prepared and consumed, and even what counts as ‘food’” (p. 6). You further assert these “are not empirical questions to be answered in labs or clinics but social questions continually addressed through the combination of scientific, cultural, and political—but also historical—processes” (p. 6). How does this understanding of nutrition as socially constructed and deeply historical guide your work? How do you hope such a perspective might shape other scholarship related to nutrition?
A: An important realization I came to in researching and writing this book was that at no point in this period (and I would extend this assertion to the present, though with perhaps a little less confidence) was there a stable, consistent sense of what it meant to be well nourished. Nutrition is an extraordinarily complex science and a positively Gordian social construct (without the Alexandrian solution)—it’s one of the main reasons I find it so fascinating as a historical topic! But at the same time, the teachers and social workers and others who saw hungry and malnourished kids on a daily basis had no doubts about the presence of serious nutritional problems. So on one hand, you have undeniable evidence that a lot of kids needed more and better food, but on the other, it was impossible to define with any precision how such kids should be identified and what the best way to solve the problem was. And it’s the discussions of the problem and possible solutions that really reveal how people were thinking about food, nutrition, and health, and those discussions happened both in professional circles—e.g., in medical journals and scientific reports—but also in schools and newspapers and other public venues. I think a lot of the best work on the history of nutrition really engages with both.
Lunch carts on Broad Street, New York City, c. 1906. Note the lunchroom on the second floor of the building in the background. (Source: Library of Congress, LC–D4–19577)
E: I couldn’t agree more. Similarly, I so appreciate that you provide rich details about what students ate as part of school lunch programs, but also about what students ate when school lunch program weren’t in place in urban schools: pickles, pies, donuts, pretzels, and candy, purchased at nearby restaurants, corner stores, bakeries, and street vendors. I love how you write, “To the urban worker or schoolchild, street foods offered seemingly endless variety, exceptionally low prices, and a hot meal even away from home. But to the nutritionist or health officer, street foods—often adulterated, contaminated, and lacking in nutrients—were a substantial risk to health” (p. 30). You write very convincingly about how meal programs (then and now!) face the challenge of providing nutritious, tasty food that children will eat and enjoy, alongside fiscal restraints and kinks in supply chains. How do you situate school food historically, and maybe now as well, within this broader foodscape and these systemic issues?
A: School meals were developing at about the same time as many other innovations in the history of food, including lunch carts, commercial canning, pre-prepared meals, and so forth. In large part, that is because all of those innovations were responses to larger social forces. Industrialization, for example, led to large numbers of workers eating a mid-day meal away from home, necessitating whole new ways of thinking about what, where, and how to buy, prepare, and eat food. And yet food is also deeply personal and cultural—there are few choices so difficult to regulate as the choice of what to ingest, and that goes for children as well. Thus, school meal programs were (and in many cases still are) often in competition with other dining options. Selling food to children is enormously lucrative—as it was a hundred years ago—and whenever there’s a lot of money involved, there will be those who fight to gain access to consumers. Indeed, this tension underlies much of what I write about in the book.
E: Yes! With all these issues at play, school food is often a hot topic today. I’d love to get your historically informed take on two recent big stories on school lunch programs. The first is the many articles and posts (rightfully) critiquing lunch shaming, that is, giving children an alternative lunch, like a cheese sandwich, if they have an unpaid lunch bill. A 2014 Department of Agriculture report found that such practices are widespread and common practice in nearly half of all school districts. From your research in lunch programs across the country, are there historical precedents for these sorts of practices or the thinking that lies beneath them?
A: The resurgence in lunch shaming is truly appalling, and I cannot fathom why any human being would do such a thing to a child. While there is, of course, a long history of such practices, they were not as common in the past, largely because early lunch programs were mostly philanthropic in nature. In fact, most cities quickly moved to a ticket or token system, so that poor children receiving lunches paid for by charitable donations and children who paid for their lunches with their own pennies would all “pay” for their actual lunch using a chit. While there was some support for free meals for all students, most advocates argued that children who could afford to pay should pay, which reflected larger Progressive views about social order and capitalism. Yet they also worried about the shame poor children would feel about accepting handouts, and so the ticket or token system was a way to construct meal programs around financial transactions but also preserve the dignity of all children.
School Lunch at PS 40 in New York City in 1919. (Source: NYPL/Manuscripts and Archives Division)
E: Lastly, it was recently announced that New York City is moving to a universal lunch program in their public schools, feeding all 1.1 million children free lunches, a policy move that other food scholars—notably Janet Poppendieck, author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America—have supported and advocated for. In your book, you write quite convincingly that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was “in many ways the legislation that early reformers hoped for, but failed to enact” (p. 164). Given the research you did on early school lunch programs, particularly in New York City, how do you think those early reformers would react to this new and exciting development? And what are the historical lessons that New York City officials should keep in mind as they implement this expansion in school lunch programming?
A: It’s a huge move. New York City already provides universal free breakfasts, but the lunch program is (I believe) quite a bit bigger. And yes, it’s the kind of thing that many early advocates hoped for, in that it is a clear sign that the state is taking responsibility for the health of schoolchildren. In many ways, this is logistically a smaller step than it sounds, as so many schools in New York City already qualified for community eligibility. But in the policy arena, it will make the city something of a bellwether, and people will be watching carefully for evidence of both successes and failures. As far as lessons go, the history of school meals suggests that the most successful programs: provided meals that were warm, fresh, and culturally appropriate; worked hard to generate community buy-in and engage both the children themselves and their parents; and made the lunch not just a meal but an integral part of the eductional program. This is something a lot more schools have revived—including many schools in New York City—and it promises to make school meal programs much more effective, as effective as the reformers of a hundred years ago knew they could be.
Andrew Ruis’ Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States is available in paperback, hardcover, and as an eBook from: