“Public education, in its best sense embodies public welfare”

Common knowledge suggests that school lunches are staples of the educational experience in New Mexico and the U.S. more generally. However, that sentiment elides the truth about nutritional programs; they developed in uneven half-steps, driven by nutritional science, educational pedagogy, federal funding, and a rash of other evolving paradigms. What I’d like to present today are a number of scraps—half-digested materials that explain the emergence of school lunches in New Mexico during the 1940s. These pieces should coalesce, but for now consider them an appetizer.

Federal involvement in school lunches began during the later years of the Depression. In January of 1940 the NM Department of Education, in conjunction with the Department of Public Health, was busy collecting and examining teacher problems throughout the state. Among those they listed was this one, reprinted in the School Review: “We have a hot lunch program. Students bring lunches that are not nourishing. What can I do to remedy this situation and supplement the lunch from home?” Others bemoaned the unhealthy foods purchased by students from local grocery stores—these were stereotyped as “hot dogs” and “cola.” Further, other educators worried that lunch time was far too short, and students could not properly eat with such few minutes. Some schools took proactive measures against the perceived poor quality of the lunch ‘hour.’ However, they needed federal input in order to actualize their goals.

This coalition started small, with a few pilot programs; in Atrisco school, West of Albuquerque, educators developed a school lunch program. They quantified their problem, noting that nearly 270 pupils lacked sufficient lunches yet stayed during lunchtime, eating what little they did bring. The Bernalillo County Classroom Teacher’s Association sponsored the serving of a hot lunch, while the Work Projects Administration and the Federal Surplus Commodities Commission provided surplus food (in this instance, butter, peaches, cornmeal, and flour). Parents and teachers helped cook the lunch, finding strong buy-in from the older children, who wanted food too (it was initially served to the younger children).

Other Albuquerque-area PTAs also recognized the need for their involvement; in La Mesa volunteers also developed a hot lunch program, and in Eugene Field the PTA supplied milk. Scarcity revealed itself in this communal preparation of school lunches. In one unnamed locale, the lunch committee prepared the food and brought vegetables, while the teacher bought butter and salt, and the utensils, bought by a student-run ice cream sale, were kept in a schoolmade cabinet. This involvement by parents and students is merely the tip of a massive public work iceberg—school lunch became one integral facet of a larger health program, driven by altruism, pedagogy, and science.

By late 1940, the WPA operated a school lunch project in the state. This subdivision, run by Ruth C. Miller, the supervisor, with Nina B. Larkin as the public health envoy. They worked with commodities brought to the state via the FSCC, but as noted in Atrisco, these women and their employees developed strong local ties. These connections consisted of teachers, parent organizations, and other sponsors, who brought in food to schools (making up for the shortfalls of the FSCC deliveries). Their project also created thorough treatises on the importance of lunch to child health, which they sent to schoolteachers and parents.

Science became the answer to food ills. Tuberculosis tests, weight checks, and other health schemes already existed in Albuquerque schools by 1940. School lunchrooms, argued Miller and Larkin, were the “practical laboratory” where children learned to cook, eat, and behave well. This scientific approach materialized in the section for schoolchildren, where they studied calcium and other vitamins, the digestive process, food groups, and regular bowel movements! Interestingly, the section on community was also prescient; here are a few of the questions it asked students.

“1: What vegetables do we raise in our community? Do many people have gardens? Could more people have gardens if we got them interested in raising vegetables? Could we can and dry some vegetables?

2: Is there any place near the school where we could have a school garden? Is there some organization in the community that would give us seeds for such a garden?

4: When we have learned what foods help us to grow perhaps we can talk this over at home and with our parents make some changes in the food we buy for the family.

10: Do some foods need to be brought into the community where we live? Which ones?”

Among the interesting (and oddly modern) tidbits contained in these reports is the exhortation that families needed to learn how to garden and can their harvests. In this age, it’s refreshing to see similar admonitions not against overabundance, but against depression. In Los Lunas, Hatch, Cimarron, and elsewhere, home economics departments encouraged home canning and year-round gardening as a means to improve both school and home eating for students and their families. The NM school lunch program started life as a holistic intervention into family food habits, not just a localized melioration in the school proper.

The realities of life in a rural, largely nonwhite state intruded upon the scientific discourses of the state project. Miller and Larkin described the importance of safe water, noting that “ditch water” (water from an acequia) needed sterilization before consumption. New Mexico foods also managed to wind up in the lengthy food lists appended to these treatises (although their inclusion is sporadic, and some of the charts are copied verbatim from out-of-state nutritional works). Quelites, chiles, and verdolagas (under the name purslane), but not pinto beans, made it onto their lists of foods for schoolchildren to study their own eating habits. It is unclear whether schools purchased any of these foods; however, recognition of local eating habits (including foods that you might forage for such as verdolagas) still fits within contemporary scientific discourses. Even the sample menu, developed in tandem with an Albuquerque nurse, reflects some of the food culture present in New Mexico. It included tortillas with nearly every dinner, a col cacho salad, cornmeal, and “chili sauce” covered many meals. The children also got cookies, although whether those were biscochitos is unclear.

This first research entry focuses only on the formative years of the school lunch in New Mexico. In future blogs, I will post about about the progression of school lunches through the years. I will leave one teaser from the 1950s to tide everyone over—a recipe for vegetable casserole!



2 thoughts on ““Public education, in its best sense embodies public welfare””

  1. The English peas are a dead giveaway that we are near Texas. North of there—or the Mason-Dixon line—peas are just “peas” with no need to differentiate between green, fresh peas and beanier legumes like black-eyed peas.


  2. Thanks, Jairo. I have said this many times to you already, but I want to put it into writing: I really hope that once you are close to the end of your research that you propose this as a school lunch history exhibition at a museum.


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