By A.R. Ruis
On 1 May 2017, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, announced that the federal government would provide states with “greater flexibility in nutrition requirements for school meal programs.” Amid sustained attacks on health and social welfare programs, it is difficult to read “greater flexibility” as anything but “lower standards.” The Secretary’s proclamation seems more likely to benefit businesses that sell federally compliant meals to schools than the children who eat those meals. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture waived new health regulations, developed by the Obama administration, that would have increased whole grains, decreased sodium, and eliminated flavored milks in school meals.
In his remarks, Perdue framed the proclamation as a response to feedback from students, schools, and food service experts and “the challenges they are facing” to provide nutritionally compliant meals: “If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition―thus undermining the intent of the program.” The idea that meals can be either nutritious or palatable is a false dichotomy, and when this framing drives policy, success is defined not by improved nutritional health but by increased consumption of meals―or worse, increased compliance with federal standards, which is virtually assured when the standards become more “flexible.”
Palatability and healthfulness are not, as Perdue’s comments imply, mutually exclusive, but neither is it a trivial challenge to supply nutritious meals that are appetizing, scalable, and inexpensive. It may seem that reducing added salt and sugar in school meals is a clear and uncontroversial way to improve children’s health―and it is, from a strictly physiological viewpoint―but the history of school meals suggests that policies need to account for more than basic food requirements to effectively address complex nutritional issues.
“They Give Us the Food of Animals to Eat”
For more than a century, schools have struggled to balance the tastes, preferences, and nutritional needs of children―and health experts have long lamented the unhealthful eating habits of children. At the turn of the 20th century, schoolchildren across the nation often skipped breakfast, consumption of coffee and tea was common, street foods were a booming business, and pickles, pie and sweets comprised a great many lunches. In Los Angeles, for example, students often ate “ice cream and tamales” for lunch.1 When surveyed about what he had eaten during the midday break, one New Haven student wrote: “Bought a dozen crullers. Ate all of them. Bad for the health.”2 And nearly a third of the schoolchildren surveyed in twelve Wisconsin counties drank coffee on a daily basis.3 The results of such diets, as one Chicago student quipped, were “a pain in the stomach, an ache in the head, a zero in the teacher’s class-book, and a great daub of blueberry pie on the shirt waist.”4 Health experts went considerably further: U.S. Surgeon General Thomas Parran considered hunger and malnourishment to be the country’s “greatest producer of ill health.”5
As many schools quickly learned, however, it was not sufficient to simply offer children more nutritious options. Indeed, the very concept of food, let alone healthful or nutritious food, is ever evolving. When a New York City school sent each student home with a sack of oatmeal in the early 20th century, it was not universally received as supplemental nutrition assistance. “This food was supposed to make you big and strong. You ate it for breakfast,” recalled Leonard Covello, an Italian immigrant who grew up in East Harlem. “My father examined the stuff, tested it with his fingers. To him it was the kind of bran that was fed to pigs in Avigliano. ‘What kind of school is this?’ he shouted. ‘They give us the food of animals to eat and send it home with our children!’”6
As numerous U.S. cities began experimental school meal programs in the first decade of the 20th century, they soon recognized that simply offering meals―even nutritious, appetizing, well prepared meals―was not sufficient to address hunger, malnutrition, and students’ poor dietary choices.
“To Beat the Pushcart Man at His Own Game”
In 1905, when the Salvation Army offered free breakfasts to children on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, they couldn’t give the food away. Despite the grinding poverty of the neighborhoods in which the nine breakfast stations were situated, many of the children would not accept the food, and the Salvation Army abandoned the effort. Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement House, thought the program failed “because regard seemed not to have been paid to the religious and national customs of the children, the Jewish children having felt possibly that the food was not prepared according to their ritual, the Catholics having been unable to use meat broths on Fridays, and the Italian children finding the American method of seasoning flat and tasteless.”7
In Philadelphia and Boston, San Antonio and Louisville, and even in smaller cities like Bedford, Pennsylvania, schools were beginning experimental meal programs―and those programs catered to the tastes and religious requirements of the larger ethnic groups. In no city was this more important than New York. By 1910, New York City had more Germans than Hamburg, more Jews than Warsaw, more Irish than Dublin, and more Italians than Rome, and no locality on earth had more non-natives. When a small group of citizens began pilot lunch programs in several of the city’s schools, they developed different menus for different ethnic groups and hired local cooks. Irish and Italian cooks were hired for schools with children of those ethnicities; schools in Jewish neighborhoods had Jewish cooks who prepared only kosher meals, as the kitchens were periodically inspected by a rabbi; and in all schools, meat substitutes were available on Fridays for Catholic students.
But it was not only tradition with which schools had to contend. By the first decade of the 20th century, street foods―ready-to-eat food and drink sold from pushcarts, buggies, baskets, wagons, or sidewalk stalls―were a booming business. “It is difficult to determine what is not sold in the eatable and drinkable line at these primitive lunch counters,” observed a police officer in Cleveland. “Oysters, clams, fishballs, meat cakes, sausages, cold meats, sandwiches, fried fish, fried potatoes, pretzels, pies, rolls, buttermilk, sweet milk, lemonade, coffee, tea, root beer and orangeade are only a few of the refreshments to be purchased, and everything is as cheap as dirt.”8 Such offerings met the ever-growing demand for quick midday meals among urban workers and schoolchildren. But they were also largely unregulated at a time when adulteration and contamination were widespread problems. Thus to “beat the pushcart man at his own game,” schools endeavored to match the wares being offered in their vicinities. In New York City, when the pushcart man “offers tempting sugared apples on sticks, so do the schools; when he has spice cakes in fascinating shapes, spice cakes are as like as not to be found on the luncheon tables. But the school apples are good apples, the school sugar is pure sugar, the school spice cakes are nourishing spice cakes.”9
Not surprisingly, however, to compete with the larger ecosystem of meals in this way entailed compromising some nutritional goals in order to ensure that children ate safe, wholesome food. But it also reflected the need for school meal programs to incorporate more than, well, meals.
“Teaching Must Go along with Feeding”
As more and more cities, and even many rural schools, began to implement meal programs in the first decades of the 20th century, it became clear that while providing free or low-cost meals was effective, it would be more effective if it were integrated with nutrition education. “If children are to learn proper habits of nutrition which will insure well-nourished bodies as they grow into adulthood,” Assistant Commissioner of Education Bess Goodykoontz testified before the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, “teaching must go along with feeding.”10 This view was widely accepted among health, nutrition, and education experts, and even found support in Congress. Louisiana Senator Allen Ellender, one of the chief architects of the National School Lunch Act, argued that the
The school lunch, properly directed, becomes an activity through which children learn some of the most important lessons of life; namely, the production, conservation, purchase, preparation, serving, and consuming of foods. But to accomplish these purposes the school lunch must become an integrated part of the entire school program.11
When the National School Lunch Act was passed in 1946, however, it made no provision for nutrition education or other efforts to maximize the impact of the meals. Ostensibly the longest-running and most extensive children’s health program in U.S. history, the National School Lunch Program contained no educational component, only the most minimal nutrition standards, no specific health agenda, and no provision for training or supervision of school meal personnel. Despite its stated goal “to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food,” the program, as it was conceived in 1946 and as it was implemented for most of its history, was ultimately an agricultural protection measure far more than a nutritional health initiative.12
Although the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act attempted to address some of these short-comings, establishment of nutrition standards remains at the discretion of the USDA—and those standards are thus influenced by politics as much as by science.13 As Perdue’s proclamation indicates, the USDA is at present more willing to relax those standards than to provide resources for education and training that could help schools maintain high standards and satisfy the tastes and preferences of schoolchildren. While doing so presents a significant challenge, lowering nutrition standards simply to appease children’s tastes only ensures that school meals will fail those who need them most. At a time when both hunger and overweight are pressing public health problems, simply providing food that meets minimal nutrition standards is not enough.
A.R. Ruis is a researcher in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and a fellow in the Department of Surgery and the Department of Medical History and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin−Madison. He is the author of Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States, and he has published widely on the history of nutrition, food, and health.
1“High School Lunch: Ice Cream and Tamales Not Filling the Bill,” Los Angeles Times, 23 March 1901, A3.
2“High School Lunch Room: Pupils to Be Hygienically Fed at Low Prices,” New Haven (CT) Evening Register, 8 November 1897, 1.
3Gladys Stillman, Milk Drinking Survey of Rural School Children (Madison: Wisconsin State Department of Public Health, Nutrition Division, 1934), Nutrition Division Files, Series 2712, Box 2, Folder 34, Archives of the Wisconsin State Historical Society.
4Edwin L. Miller “The Lunch-Room at the Englewood High School,” School Review 13, no. 3 (1905): 202.
5School Lunches and Education: Helps from Federal Agencies (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Office of Education, Vocational Division, Cooperating Committee on School Lunches, 1942), 4.
6Leonard Covello and Guido D’Agostino, The Heart Is the Teacher (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958), 24–25.
7Lillian D. Wald, “The Feeding of School Children,” Charities and the Commons 20 (1908): 371.
8“Dinner Pail No More: Laborer Buys His Lunch of Pushcart Man,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, 27 December 1903, 15.
9Mabel Hyde Kittredge, “School Lunch Problem, Solved, Now Strikes a Snag,” New York Times, 12 January 1913, SM6. For more on the history of school meals in New York City, see 1. A. R. Ruis, “‘The Penny Lunch Has Spread Faster Than the Measles’: Children’s Health and the Debate over School Lunches in New York City, 1908–1930,” History of Education Quarterly 55, no. 2 (2015): 190–217.
10School Lunch and Milk Programs: Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, United States Senate, 78th Congress, 2nd Session, on S. 1820 and S. 1824 (2 May 1944), 17.
11Congressional Record, 79th Congress, 1st Session (8 February 1945), 924.
12National School Lunch Act, Pub. L. 396, 79th Congress, 2nd Session (4 June 1946).
13Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, Pub. L. 111–296, 111th Congress, 2nd Session (13 December 2010).