A Brief History of the School Lunch: Part 1 — Soup Kitchens and Schoolchildren

Another bit of food history this week — this time on the idea of school lunches.

At times, debates over school lunches hardly seem like a debate at all: does anyone really feel school lunches, as they exist now, are the best we can offer hungry schoolchildren? In all this discussion, it’s easy to forget that there could have ever been a time when there were no school lunches to speak of — a time when children came to school hungry and left even hungrier. While the idea of feeding kids while at school may feel obvious to us today, it would take more than a century and a unique confluence of events for the idea to catch on after its earliest attempts.

The earliest predecessor of what could be considered a school lunch began in 1790, in Munich, Germany, by an American known as Count Rumford. Born Benjamin Thompson in Woburn, Massachusetts in 1753, he was keenly curious boy with an interest in anatomy, chemistry, and physics.

As a young adult, he moved to what is now Concord, New Hampshire, and married a wealthy widow, many years his senior, when he was just 20. As the American Revolution approached, Thompson, a staunch Loyalist (and almost certainly a spy for the British), abandoned his wife and young daughter. Using his wife’s money, he fled to England in 1776. He would never see his wife alive again.

Once in England, he began to experiment and publish papers on his scientific findings regarding heat, many of which led to important advances in a number of fields, including an innovative fireplace design that still bears his name. By 1785, he moved on to Bavaria, and, after cultivating a friendship of the Duke of Bavaria, Thompson would become a Count of the Holy Roman Empire, taking “Rumford” — the old colonial-era name for Concord, NH — as his title.

In 1790, Count Rumford was working for the Bavarian military and studying the thermal conductivity of cloth. (He would later be credited with inventing the waffle-like weave we associated with thermal underwear). While working in Bavaria, he founded the Poor People’s Institute. The institute rounded up the beggars of Munich, adults and children alike, and put them to work, producing clothing for the Bavarian army. While the adults worked, the children were only required to work part-time and between their working hours, they were taught, reading, writing, and arithmetic. At lunch, the children were fed a soup of barley, peas, and potatoes (whose cultivation Rumford championed in Bavaria), cooked in vinegar or old beer and water, with little or no other seasoning. “Rumford’s Soup,” as it would later be called, was the first instance of a school feeding its students as they learned.

The food Rumford’s institute served reflected his effort to create a low-cost, nutritionally sound diet for the poor. His notion of a central location serving food to the poor en masse quickly become known as a “soup kitchen” — so named for the potato soup it doled out. In a short amount of time, soup kitchens expanded to England, Germany, Scotland, France and Switzerland, feeding tens of thousands of poor people. These large-scale cooking operations led Rumford to develop more efficient food preparation facilities to cook more food faster. Over time, aided by his continuing experiments with heat, Rumford developed (among numerous other inventions) the double boiler, pressure cooker, roasting oven, and kitchen range — each forerunners of the large-scale commercial ovens and steamers used by virtually every school food service program today.

However, while many of his innovations, like the soup kitchen and the roasting oven, were quickly embraced and spread throughout the world, Rumford’s notion of a school-provided hot lunch would still take more than a century to gain acceptance.

Coming next… Part 2: Pioneering America’s School Lunch Program

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