School Lunches Part 2: ‘Poverty’ and penny lunches

Part two comin’ at ya with tales of old-timey times.


The first American attempts at school lunch programs were begun by associations already concerned with child welfare and education. The very first was set up by the Children’s Aid Society of New York in 1853. It served hot meals to students attending its vocational school, but their program did not gain traction among other schools, and more than 40 years would pass before another program was attempted.

In 1894, the Starr Centre Association, an agency that provided social services and brought fresh milk to Philadelphia’s poorest communities, established a program of penny lunches at one school and would later expand to nine schools within Philadelphia.

Still, it was not until the publication of Poverty in 1904, by progressive author Robert Hunter, that many Americans would begin to make a connection between poor, hungry students and their ability—or inability—to learn. In his book, Hunter wrote:

It is utter folly, from the point of view of learning, to have a compulsory school law which compels children, in that weak physical and mental state which results from poverty, to drag themselves to school and to sit at their desks, day in and day out, for several years, learning little or nothing. If it is a matter of principle in democratic America that every child shall be given a certain amount of instruction, let us render it possible for them to receive it, as monarchial countries have done, by making full and adequate provision for the physical needs of the children who come from the homes of poverty.

Although almost completely forgotten today, Robert Hunter was a pioneering social reformer who believed poverty could be prevented by government action. Born in Terra Haute, Indiana, Hunter began working in Chicago, where he was mentored by fellow reformer Jane Addams and lived in her Hull House there. After he married into a wealthy New York industrialist family, Hunter and his bride then shocked society by moving out of her family’s Manhattan mansion to live in a Greenwich Village slum in order to better serve the poor.

Hunter’s book Poverty arose from his work in both Chicago and New York. In The National School Lunch Program: Background and Development, Gordon W. Gunderson asserts, “[t]here can be no doubt that Poverty [. . .] had a strong influence upon the U.S. Effort to feed hungry, needy children in school.”

After Poverty was published, school lunch programs began to proliferate in urban school areas, many within the first ten years of the publication of Hunter’s book.

Early American School Lunch Programs

1904: In Milwaukee, the Women’s School Alliance of Wisconsin began to prepare meals in the homes of families who lived near schools.

1908: Under the supervision of the Boston School Committee, the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union transported hot lunches from a system of centralized kitchens to Boston high schools.

1909: The Cleveland Federation of Women’s Clubs began serving meals to children at the Eagle School. Cincinnati schools quickly followed Cleveland’s example and both programs swelled to include more schools within two years.

1910: The Chicago Board of Education gave $1,200 to begin an experimental program of serving hot lunches to children in six elementary schools.

1911: New York’s lunch program, which had begun two years earlier as a pilot program, expanded after it was found children in the pilot program gained an average of 10.2 ounces each (compared to average gains of 3.4 ounces for other children). St. Louis selected five schools initially, then expanded to include more poorly nourished children and those who could not go home at noon.

1912: Philadelphia’s original program grew to include all the city’s high schools, overseen by the newly-created Department of High School Lunches.

1921: Although one of the last major cities to begin a lunch program, Los Angeles opened an ambitious program in 31 elementary schools, eight intermediate and nine high schools.

However, schools in rural areas would take longer to adopt school lunches. Not only did they lack the funds and space to begin programs, children usually traveled many miles to attend school—going home for lunch had never been an option. Rural students had always brought a lunchpail of cold food (usually sandwiches) to school, but in winter, these lunches would often be frozen solid when it came time to eat. Teachers began to encourage students to bring food — cocoa, soups, macaroni — that could be carried in glass pint jars and reheated in a kettle of water on the classroom stove.

While teachers, parents, local school boards, and philanthropic organizations were laboring to find ways to feed children in school, concern about child malnutrition was growing in the government as well, but for a decidedly different reason. When the United States opted to enter World War I and the first selective service draft began, nearly a third of all recruits were rejected for being underweight, undernourished, or suffering from other physical defects which could have been corrected in childhood. This upsetting news led to government research into the causes of — and potential cures for — childhood malnutrition. The most easiest and most obvious solution: a school-provided lunch.

In the years after World War I, the patchwork of school lunch programs continued to expand and gain momentum, but it soon became evident that local organizations and school boards alone could not possibly furnish all the funds needed to continue — they would need federal aid. And with the Great Depression of the 1930s bearing down on the American public, schoolchildren were about to need food aid more than ever.


You want an idea of how totally forgotten Robert Hunter is these days? He doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page! How is that even possible? Tomorrow, Part 3 will finish up the story with how the WPA swooped in to save the day.

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