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National School Lunch Program (NSLP) Early Programs by States

By Gordon W. Gunderson

Early Programs in the United States

In spite of information available from the vast experience and progress made in most of the nations of Europe, school feeding in the United States underwent the same evolution as in Europe, beginning with sporadic food services undertaken by private societies and associations interested in child welfare and education. The Children’s Aid Society of New York initiated a program in 1853, serving meals to students attending the vocational school. However, it did not gain sufficient momentum to convince other organizations or municipalities to do likewise.

There can be no doubt that Poverty, a 1904 book by Robert Hunter, had a strong influence upon the U.S. effort to feed hungry, needy children in school.

Hunter was vitally concerned with hunger, particularly among the children in poor families. ” . . . but the poverty of any family is likely to be most serious at the very time when the children most need nurture, when they are most dependent, and when they are obtaining the only education which they are ever to receive. Guidance and supervision of the parents are impossible because they must work; the nurture is insufficient because there are too many hungry mouths to feed; learning is difficult because hungry stomachs and languid bodies and thin blood are not able to feed the brain. The lack of learning among so many poor children is certainly due, to an important extent, to this cause. There must be thousands -very likely sixty or seventy thousand children-in New York City alone who often arrive at school hungry and unfitted to do well the work required. 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.”


Toward the turn of the century significant efforts at school feeding were evidenced almost simultaneously in Philadelphia and Boston.

In Philadelphia, the Starr Center Association began serving penny lunches in one school in 1894, later expanding the service to another. Soon a lunch committee was established within the Home and School League, and lunches were extended to include nine schools in the city.

Dr. Cheesman A. Herrick, who was principal of the William Penn High School for Girls when it first opened in 1909, is credited with accomplishing the transfer of responsibilities for operation and support of the lunch program from charitable organizations to the Philadelphia School Board. He requested that a system be established to assure that the lunches served would be based upon sound principles of nutrition and required that the program be under the direction of a home economics graduate. The Board granted his request on an experimental basis and on the condition that the program would be self-supporting. The experiment proved successful, and the following year lunch services were extended to the Southern Manual Training School and later to three additional units.

In the spring of 1912, the School Board established a Department of High School Lunches and- directed that the food services be inaugurated in all the high schools of the city. During all this time the Home and School League had continued operating the feeding program in the nine elementary schools, and continued to do so until May of 1915, when it reported to the Board that the need for a lunch system had been clearly demonstrated and that it could not be successfully operated by an organization outside the school system. As a result, the School Board placed the operation of both high school and elementary lunch programs under the supervision of the Department of High School Lunches and authorized the extension of the program to other elementary schools. Under the Herrick plan, light, heat, cooking gas and the original equipment were supplied by the Board. Otherwise, the program was to be self-supporting.  12


Early programs in Boston were inaugurated under the auspices of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union. According to a report of the Union’s activities in 1908, the organization had begun serving hot lunches in September of that year to high schools which were under the supervision of the Boston School Committee. A central kitchen system was used and lunches were transported to the participating schools. There was a school lunch advisory committee which set the policy for the program and actual administration of the program was in the hands of a lunchroom superintendent and a director of school lunches.  13

An experimental program for elementary schools was begun in January 1910, taking the form of a mid-morning lunch prepared by the class in Home Economics three days each week. On two days of each week sandwiches and milk were served. The children ate their meals at their desks, there being no lunchroom in the building.

Before the end of the school year (1909-1910) five additional schools were benefiting from the program, and a total of 2,000 pupils were being served each day, according to a report submitted by Ellen H. Richards in the “Journal of Home Economics” for December 1910. She stated further that “The teachers are unanimous in the belief that the luncheons are helping the children both physically and mentally. They are more attentive and interested in the lessons during the last hour of the morning and the result in their recitations gives the proof.”


In 1904, the same year that Poverty was published, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, began its efforts at meeting the need when the Women’s School Alliance of Wisconsin began furnishing lunches to children in three centers located in areas where both parents were working and the greatest need was evident. The project was supported by donations from private individuals, churches, societies and clubs. The lunches were prepared in the homes of women who lived near the schools and were willing to cook and serve the meals. Improvement in attendance and scholarship was noted, and six additional centers were in operation by 1910.

The preparation and serving of the lunches had by that time been transferred to the school buildings and a matron was employed at each school. The price of the meal was one cent for children who could pay, and they were served all the soup and rolls they could eat. Those who could not pay received their lunches free. The Alliance recognized the need for establishing additional centers throughout the city, but it was unable to raise the necessary funds for their support. The county board was requested to assume support of the school feeding program, but the proposal failed, it being the contention of the board that such action-would encourage parents to be indolent and shift parental responsibilities to the municipality.  14

School Feeding Supported

In the year following the publication of Hunter’s Poverty, there appeared another, similar publication dealing with poverty and the plight of poverty-stricken families. This was John Spargo’s The Bitter Cry of the Children. Like Hunter, Spargo dwelt extensively upon the misfortunes of children and the effect of malnourishment upon their physical and mental well-being. He estimated, after very careful study, that “not less than 2,000,000 children of school age in the United States are the victims of poverty which denies them common necessities, particularly adequate nourishment…. Such children are in very many cases incapable of successful mental effort, and much of our national expenditure for education is in consequence an absolute waste.”  15

The introduction to The Bitter Cry of the Children was supplied by none other than Robert Hunter, the author of Poverty. In commenting upon Mr. Spargo’s publication, he states, “Few of us sufficiently realize the powerful effect upon life of adequate nutritious food. Few of us ever think of how much it is responsible for our physical and mental advancement or what a force it has been in forwarding our civilized life.” Mr. Spargo’s emphasis upon the importance and appropriateness of feeding the school child is borne out in the following quotations from his book: “To the contention that society, having assumed the responsibility of insisting that every child shall be educated, and providing the means of education, is necessarily bound to assume the responsibility of seeing that they are made fit to receive that education, so far as possible, there does not seem to be any convincing answer. It will be objected that for society to do this would mean the destruction of the responsibility of the parents. That is obviously true. But it is equally true of education itself, the responsibility for which society has assumed. Some individualists there are who contend that society is wrong in doing this, and their opposition to the proposal that it should undertake to provide the children with food is far more logical than that of those who believe that society should assume the responsibility of educating the child, but not that of equipping it with the necessary physical basis for that education.”

New York

Robert Hunter had estimated that there were sixty or seventy thousand school children in New York who were not capable of doing good school work because of malnourishment. As has been previously noted, the situation had no doubt been recognized by the Children’s Aid Society of New York as far back as 1853. In that year they began serving lunches to students at a vocational school. No significant programs in the public schools developed, however, until 1908 when Dr. William H. Maxwell, superintendent of schools, made a special plea in his report to the Board of Education. “Again I appeal to you, in the name of suffering childhood, to establish in each school facilities whereby the pupils may obtain simple wholesome food at cost price.”

A school lunch committee consisting of physicians and social workers was thereupon organized to find out whether a lunch might be self supporting at a 3-cent charge to students. Two schools were selected on a trial basis. Two years later the board authorized expansion of the program to other schools of the city and agreed that the board would pay the cost of equipment and gas and supply the necessary rooms. The cost of food and labor was to be met from the sale of lunches.

During this period height and weight measurements were generally used and recognized as standards in determining nutritional adequacies. Consequently such records were maintained for 143 children for three months in the New York school lunch experiment. Records were also maintained on 81 children who did not participate in the lunch program. It was found that the 143 children had gained 91 pounds 4 ounces, or an average of 10.2 ounces each, while the 81 children gained 17 pounds or an average of 3.4 ounces. In both groups some children had lost weight, but the proportion of those who had lost weight was less among those eating the school lunches than among those who did not. This was considered as proof of the beneficial effects of one good planned meal each day at school.

Until January 1920, lunches in the elementary schools of New York had been supported by volunteer social organizations. In the 1919-20 school year, the Board of Education assumed full responsibility for all programs in Manhattan and the Bronx, and in the following year for all the programs.


Elementary school lunch service began in Cleveland, Ohio, on December 6,1909, when the Cleveland Federation of Women’s Clubs began serving breakfasts to 19 children at the Eagle School. One additional school was added in 1910, and by 1915 meals were being provided for all special classes in the grade schools, excepting the school for the deaf. In total about 710 children were being provided for each day.

School lunch services in Cleveland took on a unique aspect. The Board of Education furnished the equipment and provided the lunchrooms. However, “For crippled and open air children the Federation of Women’s Clubs provides food and at each school employs a woman to prepare it. For the blind, the Society for Promoting the Interests of the Blind takes charge. The committees, in consultation with principal, medical inspector, and supervisor of high school lunches, make out the different menus. The Board of Education contracts with these committees to furnish meals to exceptional children in specified schools at so much per child per day, according to the kind and number of meals supplied. 16

In some schools the meals were served at 10 a.m. and again at 2 p.m., and the children went home for their noon lunch. In other schools the lunches were served at noon. Apparently “open air” children received the two lunches each day, and the noon meal was supplied for the blind and crippled children who did not go home at noon.

The meal generally consisted of “bread and jam and a hot dish, such as beef stew, minced meat with potatoes, thick soup, or macaroni with tomato sauce. A few, on order from the medical inspector, get milk in the morning”.  17

In the summer of 1909, lunchrooms were installed in seven high schools in Cleveland. For 16 years prior to this, lunches had been provided by “lunch wagons” going to the schools or by stores in the vicinity serving hot meals at noon. In some schools the “basket lunches” were served on the school premises by caterers. Even after the installation of lunchrooms and equipment in the seven high schools, the operations in the schools were actually conducted by the former caterers under contract with the Board of Education on a concessionaire basis.

In the contract the Board of Education agreed to furnish all the necessary equipment, as well as heat, light, gas and water, sufficient for the proper maintenance of the lunchrooms, and to replace all equipment rendered useless through natural wear and tear.

In 1914-15 the normal school and all high schools except two were provided with lunch services. This involved a total of 6,715 students. All items served were priced a la carte and a typical “menu” offered a selection from about 15 items, including milk. “In some schools the range of choice is too great, in others too small. In all it is uneven. Vegetable soup is always vegetable soup and the price is 4 cents; but price is the only constant factor, for the materials used vary from school to school. That is, a nickel will buy more food, often of better quality, in one school than it will in another.”  18

Milk was furnished to all schools by one dairy selected by the lunchroom supervisor.

“All other supplies are chosen by the individual concessionaires, who are entirely responsible for the service. In a number of schools they prepare the food themselves, which increases their difficulties for they are frequently interrupted by trades people, by lunchroom helpers asking questions, by stray students who need attention, and by teachers on diet who want beef juice or an eggnog, or by other teachers who have a free hour and want a special meal. Lunch has to be prepared in between these demands and dishes are sometimes ready long before the regular lunch period.”  19

Naturally, concessionaires had no guaranteed, minimum income. During the 1914-15 school year, concessionaire’s profits ranged from $942 in one school to as little as $124 in another. The median for 10 schools was $605. The comments of a survey committee concerning the “Place of Lunch Service in the School System” is worthy of special note: “School lunches meet a natural need of all children. The purpose of the service is to teach children to choose wisely the food they buy. The conduct of school lunches is a business, an art, and a science…. The Superintendent of Lunches should have the same rank as the director of any other special division and be compensated accordingly. She should be subordinate to the educational department, for her work bears a direct relation to all health teaching in the schools and offers an opportunity to teach children the ethics and economies of spending, and various factors affecting the price of school meals and restaurant meals.”  20  In the summary of its findings and recommendations the survey committee states, among other things. “The school lunch division should reach all children; it should provide wholesome and nutritious food for them at cost, train them in sane habits of eating, and teach them to choose wisely what food they buy.”  21


Almost simultaneously with the installation of lunchrooms in Cleveland. civic and social organizations were preparing for serving penny lunches in at least one school in Cincinnati. Here, again, the school board furnished the equipment, excepting that the very first equipment was paid for from private donations.

Five food items were served every day, two of which were hot foods. Each item was sold for a penny. The following are samples of menu offerings: “1. Hot meat sandwich; baked sweet potato; oranges; candy balls; graham crackers. 2. Hot wieners; rice pudding in cones; candy; bananas; cakes.” The salary of the cook was paid by the Council of Jewish Women. All other costs were met by lunchroom receipts.

St. Louis

In St. Louis, five schools in congested areas of the city were selected for an experiment in school lunch services in October 1911. High schools already had some form of lunch service, but it was decided to expand the services to elementary schools primarily for poorly nourished children and for those children who could not go home at noon. About 900 children were participating in the five centers. At the outset the food was prepared at the Central High School kitchen and transported to the elementary schools. This was found to be excessively costly, however, and after a month’s experience the preparation was transferred to each of the participating schools.

Originally the board purchased the food, but “It was decided, however, that it was illegal to spend public funds for the purchase of food and the board was obliged to abandon the work.”  22  Consequently, the programs were required to be self-supporting aside from the cost of equipment, which was paid by the board.


According to the Department of Interior, Bureau of Education Bulletin No. 37, issued in 1921, “Chicago has the most intensive school lunch system in America.” At that time, all the city’s high schools and 60 elementary schools were carrying on school feeding programs as a full responsibility of the Chicago Board of Education. “Most of the high school children attend the lunchroom for part of their meal at least, and in the elementary schools approximately 31,000 children are served daily.”

The program had its beginning in 1910, when the Chicago Board of Education authorized the expenditure of $1,200 to begin an experimental program of serving hot lunches to children in six elementary schools.  23  By 1916, the number of elementary schools participating had grown to 28 and 31 high schools had joined the program.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles had entered upon a fairly substantial program by 1921. The Board of Education sponsored the program in nine high schools, eight intermediate, and 31 elementary schools. The participation in high schools ranged from 450 to 1,800 students per day per school, in the intermediate school 700 to 1,000 per school, and in the elementary system approximately 120 pupils per day per school. The programs in the high schools and intermediate schools were managed by student body associations or by a cafeteria director selected from the Home Economics Department. The elementary schools selected for participation in the program had a high percentage of students needing the noonday lunch because of defective nutrition. The undernourished children were fed at noon and in some cases were given a snack at 10 a.m. Lunches were sold at cost, but were given free to those unable to pay. The deficit in the elementary program was taken care of by the P.T.A. In the high schools and intermediate schools students unable to pay for their lunches were given work in the Home Economics Department or in other areas in the school to pay for their meals.

In a 1918 survey by the New York Bureau of Municipal Research, concerning school lunchroom services in 86 cities having over 50,000 population, it was found that only 25 percent of them provided lunch services in elementary schools, but that 76 percent had some form of lunch services in high schools. In high schools it was found that the noon lunch period was short and students came long distances to school. Some form of meal service was, therefore, considered essential. For the most part, elementary school children lived in the neighborhood of the school and could go home for their noonday meal. Improvement of nutrition was not a part of the consideration. Only five of the cities reporting lunchroom services in high schools indicated that the program had been instituted as a means of overcoming malnutrition among the students.

Rural Schools

Nationally, rural schools had a special problem in attempting to establish warm noonday lunches for their pupils. Almost without exception there was no room available for setting up a kitchen and dining area. Children came to school from long distances, and their lunches at noon consisted mainly of cold sandwiches, many of them of questionable nutritive value.

Efforts were made beginning in the early 1900’s to provide some means of warming certain foods brought from home or to prepare a hot food of some kind at school as a supplement to the foods brought from home. Public funds for such purposes were generally not available. But many ingenious teachers devised plans for preparing soups or similar hot dishes from meats and vegetables brought to school by pupils as a donation for the general use of all. Students took turns in helping to prepare the foods before the morning session began. Such dishes were cooked in a large kettle set on top of the stove which also heated the school room. In Wisconsin, an extensive program known as “the pint jar method” was used in heating foods brought from home. Students were encouraged to bring such items as soups, macaroni, cocoa, etc. in a pint jar. The pint jars were set into a bucket of water on top of the room heater or stove, and by lunch time such foods would be piping hot. Much stress was placed upon the importance of students receiving some hot food at school each day to supplement the cold sandwiches (sometimes frozen solid by the time the student reached school).

County home demonstration agents of the University Extension Service were extremely helpful to rural schools in devising plans for providing some supplementary hot foods and in drawing up lists of suggested “menus” in advance.

Parent-Teacher Associations became increasingly concerned and active in the school lunch movement, and supported activities through donations of funds and equipment. Pots, pans, cooking utensils, portable ovens, and domestic type ranges were often donated by the associations or even by individual families. Such assistance was invaluable in getting the program started in many rural and village schools.

In 1914 the Pinellas County (Florida) health officer, decided to experiment at the school to see what results would come out of a program which would provide each child with a half pint of milk a day. To get the program started a large white cow was placed on the playground with posters and other material to explain what was being attempted. Amid this setting the children were served their milk. The health officer was so impressed with the results that he suggested they serve a bowl of soup to the children with the milk.

A group of mothers and the principal planned and carried out the project serving the children a hot bowl of soup with crackers and one-half pint of milk. The meat and some of the potatoes were donated by the mothers. They also furnished the utensils, and the principal supplied the vegetables grown in the school garden.

Under these varied means of support -by philanthropic organizations, school-oriented associations, school district boards, and individuals-the school lunch program continued to expand, gaining momentum during the decade of the 1920’s. It was estimated that by 1981 there were 64,500 cafeterias in operation throughout the country in addition to perhaps 11,500 smaller units serving a single hot dish daily.

The depression years of the 1930’s deepened the concern over hunger and malnourishment among school children, and many States and municipalities adopted legislation, some of them including appropriations, to enable schools to serve noonday meal to their children. 24


12  Emma Smedley, The School Lunch: Its Organization and Management in Philadelphia, Smedley, 1920.
13  Marion Cronan, The School Lunch, Peoria, Illinois, Charles A. Bennett, Inc., 1962.
14  Mrs. Duane Mowry, Pennv Lunches in Milwaukee Schools, American City 4 (6), p. 283-288.
15  John Spargo. The Bitter Cry of the Children, Chicago, Quadrangle Books, 1906, p.117.
16  Alice C. Bouhton, Household Arts and School Lunches, Cleveland Education Survey 1915, pp. 121-122.
17  Ibid., P. 126.
18  Alice C. Boughton, Household Arts and School Lunches, Cleveland Education Survey 1915, pp. 145-146.
19  Ibid., p. 151.
20  Alice C. Boughton, Household Arts and School Lunches, Cleveland Education Survey l915, p. 162.
21  The findings and recommendation in the report contain no reference to provision of meals to children who were unable to pay.
22  Department of Interior, Bureau of Education Bulletin No 37, 1921, p. 24.
23  School Feeding in the United States, FDPB, P&MA, USDA, June 1947.
24  Howard L. Briggs, and Constance C. Hart, From basket Lunches to Cafeterias-A Story of Progress, Nation’s Schools, 8:51-5, 1931.