Summertime, and the Kids Go Hungry: The School Lunch Problem
For the fortunate children among us, the burning question of the morning is usually, “Should I buy or should I bring?” Sadly, this question is a luxury for many kids. More American schoolchildren than ever before rely on school lunches as their primary source of nutrition throughout the day. For them, the choice to buy or bring does not exist. Summer vacation, ideally a time to kick off some stress accrued during the school year, presents a huge problem and an added burden for families who cannot afford to feed their children. Without school in session, children miss out on access to school breakfasts and lunches. Summer lunch programs, designed to meet this need, are often geographically prohibitive for parents and altogether lacking in rural areas.
By now, you may be aware that AAUW women are often behind the very best of ideas. Let’s brag for a minute. Did you know that our own founder, Ellen Swallow Richards, created the nation’s first planned school lunch program? Richards, a chemist (and the first woman to be admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as its first female professor), was a pioneer in the field of home economics. She applied the science of chemistry to matters of the home, including studying the nutritive benefits of food.
In 1890, Richards opened the New England Kitchen, a test kitchen and sort of 1890s-style takeout restaurant that provided low-cost, nutritious meals for working class families in Boston. Richards had already studied the connection between nutrition, attention span, and ability to work, and concluded that schoolchildren needed a nutritious lunch, or what was then referred to as ”noon meal.” In 1894, her New England Kitchen joined forces with the Boston School Committee to provide lunches to public schoolchildren for a nominal cost.
In a review of the program, the New England Kitchen’s Sarah Wentworth presented the results of the four-year old Boston program to the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (AAUW’s predecessor organization) meeting in 1898. In “Some Experiments in Furnishing Lunches for School Children,” Wentworth said, “There is but one direct means of improving [students’] nutrition and that is by assuming the control of the noon luncheons available to the pupils.” Remember, this wasn’t an easy sell in the 1890s. Programs like this did not exist and were not widely accepted as necessary at the time. Still, Wentworth urged schools to accept the responsibility of providing for the “care of the body as well [as] of the mind.” As a measure of the program’s success, she noted that several new high schools were then being constructed with kitchens and cafeterias.
Since Wentworth’s presentation, fewer people argue against the benefits of school lunch and breakfast programs. President Harry Truman was on board when he signed the National School Lunch Program into law in 1946. He recognized the necessity of the program after hearing about the many young men who were rejected from the war draft because of childhood malnutrition. School lunch programs existed before 1946, but Truman’s move made it an official federal program.
The legacy of Ellen Swallow Richards lives on here at AAUW, but also in the National School Lunch Program, which in 2011 served more than 31 million school children daily with low-cost or free lunches — in many cases, a critical part of their daily food intake.