Hot Lunches for a Million School Children
by Ellen S. Woodward, Assistant Administrator, Works Progress Administration
One million undernourished children have benefited by the Works Progress Administration‘s school lunch program. In the past year and a half 80,000,000 hot well-balanced meals have been served at the rate of 500,000 daily in 10,000 schools throughout the country.
This work of rehabilitating underprivileged children is supervised in all instances by competent WPA workers, who while earning money with which to clothe and feed their own families, are given an opportunity for wider training to equip them to take their places in private employment when the opportunity arises. On March 31, 1937, the projects employed nearly 12,000 needy economic heads of families.
The School Lunch Program, like all other WPA projects, must be sponsored by tax-supported public bodies. Boards of Education usually are the official sponsors of the school lunch programs. Many civic organizations and individual patrons, however, may, and often do, render very valuable assistance by cooperating unofficially with the legitimate sponsors. The active interest of Parent-Teacher Associations all over the country, has been an important factor in the universal success with which these projects have met.
School lunch projects have aroused such community interest that in some instances, South Carolina, for example, members of various civic organizations and other responsible citizens have formed Advisory Councils, which actively support this work by contributions of food, equipment, and sometimes money.
The school lunch projects were originally intended to serve only children from relief families, but experience taught that growing children need a hot mid-day meal irrespective of their financial condition. It was found also that many children from homes where there was an adequate supply of certain kinds of food, were not receiving the proper kind of diet. It has become the policy in many communities, therefore, to serve a hot lunch to all the school children who care to partake. Parent-Teacher Associations have been largely responsible for making arrangements in many instances, whereby parents of children, who can afford it, contribute food supplies. This, however, is generally voluntary, and in no case is any distinction made in the lunch rooms between those who do and those who do not make a contribution.
Many of the children, who are fed on WPA projects, come from homes where milk is a luxury. In some instances, teachers have reported that nearly all their pupils who partake of the school lunch, have no meal during the 24 hours of the day other than that furnished on the project. For many children, who are required to leave home early in the morning and travel long distances after school hours to reach their homes, the WPA lunch constitutes the only hot meal of the day. In an even greater number of cases, children come to school with either no breakfast at all or a meager one at best.
Only those who have had occasion to witness the type of lunch that many of the children were bringing to school before the inauguration of the WPA, can fully understand or appreciate the value of those projects.
Insufficient or improper food takes not only a physical toll, but a mental toll as well. Children after all are sensitive beings. In some instances, children, from underprivileged families have been known to slip away along to eat their lunches in some secluded spot–ashamed to have the other school children witness their meager fare.
In some of the poorer communities of Georgia, for example, many of the children brought only cold bread or baked sweet potatoes. Sometimes a child’s lunch consisted of a biscuit and a piece of fried fish. If any meat at all was included, it was usually fat white meat. Prior to the inauguration of the WPA school lunch projects, a cold sweet potato or a poorly cooked biscuit spread with fat constituted the usual lunch of many children in the rural communities of South Carolina.
Before the institution of the WPA projects, many children, in certain sections of Colorado, were reported to be bringing for lunch a piece of corn bread with molasses or a cold pancake. The common kind of meat found in the children’s lunches–when there was meat–was salt pork. In many of the rural districts the lunches which were brought, were frozen or half-frozen by noon.
Even after the establishment of the WPA project, an effort was made to have each child in certain Colorado communities bring his or her own bread from home to supplement the hot dishes. This had to be discontinued because the bread that the children brought was not fit to eat. It was dirty, dry and even mouldy.
South Carolina, which feeds more than 77,000 children daily in over 2300 public schools, has the largest WPA school lunch program of all the states, except New York State, in which New York City along foods a daily average of 37,230 children.
All school children, who desire the hot lunch in South Carolina, are permitted to partake. Sponsors and co-sponsors make contributions of everything from money to beef on the hoof, and the parents of children, who can afford to do so, also contribute small amounts of food or money. Parents’ weekly contribution for a child may be a box of cocoa, a can of tomatoes, a quart of milk–or if they contribute money, it is usually 10 cents–2 cents a day.
School attendance has increased and classroom work has improved in every school in South Carolina where the school lunch project operates. Satisfactory gains in weight have been noted in previously undernourished school children. In Greenville County, for example, children, who were weighed at the beginning of the project, have been weighed again at the end of each five-week period. The records showed an average gain in weight of from three to eight pounds per child for the first five-week period.
Teachers in Decatur County, Georgia, declare that the school attendance for children, who are fed on three WPA school lunch projects, has increased 80 percent as a result of the wholesome, well-balanced, nourishing noonday meals which are served daily in the schools.
Through the cooperation of the Decatur County Health Commissioners, a weight chart was made for each child, and records have been taken at regular intervals. The average increase in weight has been shown to be from two to five pounds per month. Higher marks also have been made, some children being promoted to A–or high section of their classes–for the first time since they entered school. Greater general alertness, better deportment, and an improved attitude toward teachers and classmates are among the many manifested gains.
A school lunch project in Bryan County, Georgia, employed three WPA workers to prepare and serve hot mid-day meals to 200 children. The food was furnished by the local community through donations, supplemented by supplies from the Surplus Commodities Division.
Henry Ford, who has displayed an active interest in the health and welfare of his neighbors in Bryan County where he has an estate, has taken over on his own payrolls the three workers formerly paid by the WPA. He also has supplied the school lunch project with seventeen dozen each of certain dishes, spoons, and other tableware and has furnished tables and chairs, so that all the children may sit down together for their noonday meal.
In many Vermont towns, responsible groups of people, including the Parent-Teacher Associations and service and civic clubs, have cooperated with the WPA to provide a valuable hot lunch project and have been rewarded by watching the steady mental and physical development of the children fed.
Weight records on Vermont projects taken at the beginning of the school lunch project and again at the close, show an average gain of from two to four pounds per child. Teachers also report an increase in energy, greater accomplishment in school work, and a marked improvement in the general appearance of the pupils.
Educators, health officers and state officials in Minnesota agree that increased. weight, great concentration in the classroom and fewer absences from school are some of the immediate gains resulting to children who are being fed on the WPA school lunch projects. They state that the hot lunch is of particular value to the children of unemployed parents whose food budget has been reduced to a minimum, or below the amount required for proper growth and health protection. For many of the children in Minnesota and elsewhere, the school lunch is not only the best, but sometimes the only adequate meal of the day.
To further this work of overcoming malnutrition and preventing its further progress, certain public tax-supported bodies in Minnesota have sponsored allied projects for which the WPA has supplied the labor. In some instances, milk stations provide mid-morning lunches for the needy; and in several poor districts, where children are known to leave home on almost empty stomachs milk and graham crackers are served at school before the beginning of classes.
In New York City alone, one WPA project employs 2,346 persons who serve free lunches to thousands of pupils in over 1,000 schools. Health records show uniformly marked improvement in the children’s physical condition, and scholastic records show a parallel upward trend. Teachers state that pupils, who once exhibited sullen unresponsiveness, have become alert, interested, and in many cases, above the average in intelligence.
Dr. Louise Stanley, Chief of the Bureau of Home Economics, U. S. Department of Agriculture, expressing, in a recent letter to the Director of the Division of Women’s and Professional Projects, her appreciation of the work performed under the school lunch program, declared:
I have been very much impressed with what this has meant in making available to school children much-needed food …. The meals, where I have seen them, have been attractive, well-served, and palatable, and have contributed much in setting food standards and good food habits for the children.
Through the daily service of warm, nourishing food, prepared by qualified, needy women workers, the WPA is making it possible for many underprivileged children of the present to grow into useful, healthy citizens of the future.
Source: Woodward, Ellen, “Hot Lunches for a Million School Children,” National Archives, WPA, Record Group 69, Series 737, Box 8.