I grew up on institutional school lunches in the public schools of small town New England. Years later I still could not stomach eating coleslaw, which I now love, due to the insipidly sweet puddle in a plastic dish I remembered from school cafeterias in my youth. I remember those times where we sat at large tables after getting the same food from the kitchen ladies, usually a mystery meat or if we were lucky, Sloppy Joes, a cheap starch, and the ever-present canned fruit cocktail (or maybe green Jell-O). This did not vary from the time I entered school to when I graduated high school. There are many more options in today's schools even as this stereotypical practice of routine and uninspired dining persists. (1) Students now have salad bars and ethnic choices similar to a mall food court.
Yet, there are two kinds of midday eating I could not have imagined growing up in New England in the 1950s and 60s: Lunches at home during a homeschooling day and an open campus high school option, where students can go off campus to local restaurants. I begin with an historical discussion of what might be called simply lunch during learning, as instances in the past were not always in school, and were significantly different than what we today understand as school lunch. This brief history sets the context for the options of homeschool and open campus lunches compared to the mainstream cafeteria provided lunch or sack lunch brought from home. I compare them to my own routine school lunch and weigh what these different options can tell us about the phenomenon of eating in the middle of a day of school as a cultural and possibly curricular practice.
For homeschooling, I describe how lunch occurs at home during a day of instruction and learning. I refer to first-hand accounts of parents who homeschool as well as a recent book on Christian homeschooling. (2) I will then reflect upon personal experience as a father of a daughter who attended an open campus high school next to a large state university. I discuss the benefits and drawbacks of the open campus model for the school lunch hour, focusing on safety, nutrition, and social cliques. I seek to have us understand more broadly the rich cultural phenomenon of eating midday during school, whether that be at one's kitchen table or in a McDonald's or college student sub shop. I end with consideration of conceptual issues raised by this three-part comparison.
Cafeteria School Lunch: Some Slop, A Sack, A Pit Stop, and More?
Eating during the midday at school has evolved from the time of the first public schools in the USA in the 19th century, but there is a history of a repast taken midday during instruction that predates the common school era. I restrict this history to my own country's European, and largely English settlement (without consideration of the practices of indigenous peoples) to aid in making the arguments later that are embedded in American social history, culture, and educational practice. In this long period, nearly 200 years from early English settlement in Virginia and Massachusetts to the Revolution, teaching and learning took place in a variety of settings such as the field schools and dame schools, which preceded the academies of the early republic. Food was not provided by the itinerant teacher of the field school, nor the "dame" in her home. Most of the time children went to their own homes at midday, a practice that persisted in the academies and even in the early common schools. In the English colonies of North America, the main meal was midday, and called dinner. Families ate together, and in the evening, supper was lighter fare, usually leftovers from dinner. As the common (public) school movement gained strength in the 19th century, school lunch became more institutionalized, but it was still a haphazard arrangement of some school provided food, some sack food brought from home, and some students going home to eat.
With the rapid population rise in urban centers, schools came to resemble the factories of the early industrial age. Efforts to provide meals for students were not uniform as they are today but often the result of local social reformers:
The first major program had started in some Boston high schools in 1894, in large part due to Ellen Richards and Edward Atkinson. The New England Kitchen ran the program as a 'private enterprise' that paid for itself many times over. Although the lunches never became effective instruments for teaching the New Nutrition the founders had envisaged, by the early twentieth century they were praised for providing nutritionally sound meals and low prices to children who would not normally have them, and this became the main justification for similar lunch programs in other cities. (Levenstein 1988, p. 116)
A1904 book titled Poverty by Robert Hunter influenced further reforms. Hunter convincingly linked poverty, hunger, and child welfare:
... 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. (3) School lunches became institutionalized in 1946with the passage of the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act. (4) This measure was taken for several reasons as the social historian Harvey Levenstein states: