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Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States

Welcome to the SHCY Featured Books series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.


Audio Interview

Listen to Andrew R. Ruis talk about Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States with his interviewer, Dr. Emily Contois, Assistant Professor of Media Studies at The University of Tulsa. Or browse other episodes of the SHCY podcast, here.


Review of Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States

The below review is from the Journal for the History of Childhood and Youth 11, no. 3 (Fall 2018): 470-472.

Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States.
By A. R. Ruis.
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017. ix + 201 pp. Cloth $95.00, paper $29.95.

Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States by A. R. Ruis is a carefully crafted account of some of our nation’s earliest school food programs. The book is part of the important Rutgers University Press book series Critical Issues in Health and Medicine and is composed of six substantive chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue. Built upon extensive archival investigation, Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat offers much insight into how the National School Lunch Program took early shape at the turn of the twentieth century, a period of rapid urbanization, industrialization, and demographic change. Taken together, the chapters help us to understand the historical context and changing social tides that left a lasting imprint on a program that has been the subject of substantial debate for more than a century. Changing ideas about health, the ascendance of scientific expertise, growing recognition of poor nutritional health among children, increasing opposition to child labor, and the changing value of the child serve as a backdrop. Of particular relevance to understanding the early iterations of school food programs in the United States was the shifting understanding of school itself. Whether school was fundamentally an institution of the state or a community institution, a social welfare institution committed to the betterment of children or exclusively an educational institution was a subject of widespread disagreement. This is a point Ruis revisits on several occasions, revealing tensions about the relationship of the state to individuals and the collective body informing public and policy discussion.

Most early school lunch programs were organized by private charity. The view that a state-sponsored subsidized lunch program would cultivate national dependency, pauperization, and moral degeneracy was widely held by state and municipal government officials and middle-class charity organizations. Yet there was also considerable variation, with some city school boards adopting broad, school-based health initiatives. The majority of school boards relied on community partnerships with women’s clubs, churches, and settlement houses to skirt rules against use of public money for school lunch. A few school boards sued states and municipalities to secure legal funds to cover the cost of school lunch. To understand these municipal differences and their sociopolitical contexts, Ruis spotlights two contrasting cases of school food programs.

In Chicago, the subject of chapter 2, public obligation for children’s nutritional health was taken as a given. But widespread indifference characterized New York City (chapter 3), whose school board saw feeding children as an activity belonging to the private realm of home. Both chapters offer rich detail of the complexity in administering school lunch programs and provide interesting contrast between the two cities in their willingness to address religious and ethnic differences among immigrant student populations. From the two cases, we also learn some things haven’t changed all that much. Early school lunch programs had to compete against the pull of commercial food vendors. In the early 1900s, the concessionaires and street food tempted many children, much in the way McDonald’s does today.

Chapter 4 examines school lunch programs in rural schools, detailing an altogether different set of obstacles. Despite rural children’s proximity to farm food, malnutrition was common. The high cost of rural education and few resources made the task of feeding rural children difficult. At the turn of the twentieth century most rural schools were single-room schools, with little more than a wood-burning stove to heat the room, let alone an appropriately equipped kitchen. Yet rural food programs, unlike their urban counterparts, did attempt more comprehensive nutritional programming.

The final two substantive chapters offer a lead-up to the National School Lunch Program and the changing role of the federal government in the 1930s, a period marked by soaring relief registers, high demand for food aid, and the collapse of family farms. Federal involvement in school lunch programs ignited contentious struggles over federal expansion and states’ rights, yet for the first time, the farm problem and the food problem were inexplicably linked. Ruis details a noted shift in policy to stabilize agricultural markets away from controlling food supplies to production. This set the groundwork for other changes as the nation moved out of the Depression: a move away from subsistence farming to commodity production and a shift in focus away from nutritional health toward agricultural protections for US food markets overseas, helping to explain why the National School Lunch Program has failed, in many respects, to adequately address children’s health and hunger. In the end, we learn many early lunch programs were considerably more successful in their efforts to feed our nation’s children than the federally organized program.

Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat is a worthwhile and engaging read that is a meaningful addition to the literature.

Amy L. Best
George Mason University


Andrew R. RuisAbout the Author

Andrew R. Ruis is Associate Director for Research of the Epistemic Analytics Lab in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and a fellow of the Medical History and Bioethics Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Ruis completed his Ph.D. in History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at UW–Madison in 2011, and his historical research explores issues of children’s health and nutrition in the 19th and 20th centuries. His first book, Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States, was published by Rutgers University Press in 2017.

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