The School Lunch

shafter camp nursery lunchShafter Nursery School, Lunchtime

Under the umbrella of food history is a vast array of potential topics, each with their own historiographies. Although I do not specialize in food history, I have worked with it in two important respects—its relation to labor and nutritional science. Within family and childhood history, food takes an eminent position. It is food (or the lack thereof) which drives state and local aid policy towards poor families. My thesis, an examination of Dust Bowl migrant families in California, emphasized the importance of food as relief. I’d like to talk here about how food relates to the poor, particularly in rural locations, within the school system. Lastly, I will offer a tentative version of my food history project, which will tackle the development and efficacy of school lunches in New Mexico.

How does a school lunch program come into being? This question has been tackled at the national scale by several gifted authors, most prominently by Susan Levine in her book School Lunch Politics. Here, I will offer a condensed take on the school lunch, relying on Levine, but primarily rooted in research I conducted two years ago in California’s state archives.  In essence, school lunch programs began life as a dualistic, and underhanded, federal ploy to feed children while also paying farmers. The gist of this was that farmers, left with unsold produce (which would normally be destroyed or sold at a low price) were paid by the government via the Farm Surplus Commodities Commission, which bought the abundance and distributed it through the various relief agencies and schools. By and large, school lunches became staples of the public education system in the years during and after WWII. This was accomplished via a political coalition which banked on the public’s interest in feeding children during the war (due in no small part to the malnutrition and hunger of the Depression Era).

That being said, each state and locality contains the seed of a unique story.  In California, hunger was especially rampant, among both natives and migrants into the state. As early as 1938, Helen Hefferman, a Department of Education bureaucrat, was recommending that California relief systems provide nourishing meals alongside education for migrant children, in the hopes that this would make them attentive. She was drawing on the pioneering works of nutritional scientists such as Dr. Ruth Okey, a nutritionist from Berkeley who had written a report on nutritional requirements for the state some four years prior. Two prongs of state school lunch developed in short order. Within elementary and high schools, the FSCC responded with an extension of its program into California by the next year. State officials were excited by the program’s early, and promising, results. Despite their rose-colored glasses, bureaucrats ignored several important shortfalls; for one, nutritional science was still developing, and although connections were already established between scientific data and the lunchroom, many of the purchasing decisions were based on farm overstock, not on the best fit for the child’s daily intake. Further, many administrators flatly denied the child’s right to food by couching the program in other parts of the state anti-poverty project, with one report flatly stating that “this is a health program and not a relief program.”

The second path to school lunch led through the nursery school. These were often located within migrant camps and other rural areas, and were funded (and staffed) by the Works Progress Administration. These too, were a dual-purposed bureaucratic endeavor; they gave jobs to women as teachers, and gave care to young children so their parents could work. There was, of course, a lot of breath wasted about how these primarily served to cultivate and grow the toddlers. In continuing my research into school lunches, I would like study the resiliency of this dual role that the school lunch plays.

Thus, what I find most interesting about food is the way it links the state, discourses on science, parents, educators, and children together in a web of dependence and rhetoric. To that end, I hope to conduct research into the genesis and evolution of the school lunch program in Albuquerque (and the state more generally). Albuquerque is not the same place as the California Central Valley, but the creation of school lunches might have faced similar issues of poverty, a rural hinterland, and race. There are myriad potential research questions—where does the state purchase the food for its program? When did it start, and under what conditions? Did it follow federal or other state leads, or carve its own path? What sort of food culture did school lunches promote in NM? What did the meals look/taste like? Were they nutritionally sound? In planning this research, I’d like to emphasize the meal planning, food provenance, and nutritional aspects of the school lunch. I may aim for a quantitative analysis of lunches, providing (as far as I am able) calculations on average nutrient content for lunches, the cost of the lunches, and the state’s analysis of lunch benefits. There are a lot of potential paths through the archival materials, so my next step is to identify and start sifting through the sources.


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