There have been several articles in the news of late about the increasing problems facing American families when it comes to providing good, nutritious meals to children during their day at school.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, passed in March of 2020, has provided the primary funding for free meals for all children regardless of income.

The beginning of the 2022-2023 school year saw the end of those free meals for all children and brought the return of the previous free or reduced-price program, which provides food for children whose family’s income is low enough to qualify. In Connecticut, the no-cost school meals have been temporarily extended with funding provided by a $30 million School Meals Assistance Revenue for Transition (SMART) grant (does the government have a full-time, legislative acronym creator?). All Connecticut schools were offered that assistance after the CARES Act money offered during the pandemic expired in June of 2022.

Locally, the ER9 school district has received over $350,000 in SMART money for the 2022-23 school year to provide free school meals to the roughly 2,500 students within the district. That money has now been expended, and the district will again need to charge financially ineligible students and their families for meals.

Presently, to qualify for free school meals, a family of four must earn less than $36,075 on an annual basis. That figure increases to $51,338 per year for reduced-price meals. Many lower income families now find that they earn slightly too much to qualify for federally subsidized free or reduced-price meals. Couple that with the increasing costs of food items on grocer’s shelves and many children are now going hungry during the school day.

With that knowledge in hand, it seems like a good time to look back in history to see how America, and in particular the Town of Easton, has fed its school children over the span of the last 200 years.

When Easton was comprised of thirteen school districts shortly after it was split from Weston in the middle of the 19th century, there was no protocol for seeing to it that the town’s children were fed during their day at school. One-room schoolhouses had no provisions for serving meals. The small wood fired stoves were meant for heating, not for cooking. Drinking water was usually provided by the older boys who either worked the hand pump on the school’s shallow dug well or lowered the bucket into the water below if that well wasn’t equipped with a pump. There would be enough water available for the children to drink, but usually by using a single, shared tin cup that was only cleaned at the end of the day.

Children either brought their own lunch or were allowed to walk home for their mid-day meal if they lived close enough to the school to make it home and back during the time the teacher provided for lunch to be consumed. Those who brought their own food usually did so by bringing it to school in a covered tin pail.

The typical cloak room of a rural one-room schoolhouse would have held student lunches in tin pails such as these.

For those who brought their own lunch, the food of that era would have been simple fare. Eggs were plentiful. Every farmer had hens and there would have always been enough eggs to meet the needs of the entire family. If a family needed more eggs, they raised more hens. Hard boiled eggs didn’t need to be refrigerated, they provided good protein, and they were available on a year-round basis. Apples would have been the most available fruit. They kept well in the family’s root cellar and if the harvest had been good, there should have been enough apples to last for most of the upcoming year. Hardtack, a simple, long-lasting biscuit made from flour, water, and a little salt, kept well, and provided a mid-day sustenance even it if was mostly devoid of flavor.  Cheese was another homemade product that could be preserved without refrigeration, and it went well with the hardtack. But this is where the list of viable, portable lunch foods pretty much ends.

While Easton’s school children probably never went without food, many were most likely not getting the type of nutrition needed to develop into healthy young adults.

Schools in some of the nation’s largest cities began experimenting with in-house lunch programs in the 1890’s. As schools were consolidated and enrollments swelled, it became less feasible for most children to return home to eat their lunch.

Philadelphia and Boston were the first major cities to actively attempt to implement a school lunch program in the United States. Philadelphia began by serving penny lunches at one school in 1894. After exhibiting some initial success, the program was expanded to cover eight additional schools within that city.

Around the same time, the city of Boston began serving hot lunches in public high schools using a centrally located kitchen to prepare the meals, which were then distributed to the participating schools. During the early years of the 20th century, the city began an experimental program serving a hot lunch to elementary school students on three days a week. On the other days, a simple meal of milk and sandwiches was offered. Since there yet were no lunchrooms in schools, students would eat at their desks. As these lunch programs grew, newer school buildings began to see the addition of full-service kitchens and lunchrooms.

While most larger cities embraced the idea of feeding school children a healthy meal at noontime, many rural areas struggled with the idea. Even if a central kitchen could have been made available, distributing dozens of hot meals to outlying one-room schoolhouses would have been a logistical nightmare for a town such as Easton. Mud and snow during much of the school year would have slowed delivery so much that the once hot food would arrive both too late and too cold to serve its purpose.

With the coming of the World War One, the need for recruits grew exponentially almost overnight. When it was revealed that nearly one in three U.S. military recruits was rejected because they were either malnourished or were suffering from some physical defect related to having been undernourished as a child, it became obvious that something needed to change. School lunch programs needed to grow, and they needed to become universal in nature.

The first Mickey Mouse lunch kit appeared in 1935 and a new era in children’s metal lunch boxes was born.

Unfortunately, the desired school lunch programs weren’t readily embraced or adopted by either rural or poorly funded school districts. Without some sort of state or national legislation that would require and then guarantee the success of school lunches in the years ahead, local school boards were reluctant to adopt the program at all. Both adding kitchen equipment and additional staff was expensive and adding a dining room meant extensive and cost prohibitive remodeling of existing schoolhouses.

Finally, in 1946, the school lunch program was made official when the 79th congress recognized its importance and enacted legislation that would help fund it. President Harry S. Truman signed the National School Lunch Act into law. The law made permanent the USDA’s control of the national school-lunch program and provided funding to share some of the financial burden for providing all students with nutritious school lunches with the states.

“It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the States, through grants-in aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of food and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation and expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs.

Some early school lunches would have only supplemented the meal that children brought from home. In this case, the menu on the wall only lists soup for that day. Milk was always available. In Easton in the early 1950’s milk cost the student two cents.

The first Easton Town Report that I could find that mentioned the new federal subsidies for its hot lunch program was for fiscal 1947. Federal aid for the new cafeteria amounted to $2,368.29. State aid added an additional $231.07. Students paid a total of $5,013.30 for their lunches that year. Expenses for running the program included $5,528.97 for food and milk and $2,030.00 in wages for the three women who cooked and served the meals. In total, the program ran a deficit of $140.74. The cost of a hot lunch to the students was fifteen cents, including milk.

Principal William James remarked in his annual report: “Special mention must be made concerning the general excellence of the meals served in the school by Mrs. Kochiss, Mrs. Ohradan, and Mrs. Kolesar. In spite of problems related to increased prices and an occasional scarcity of desired foods, approximately 34,000 wholesome meals were served to the pupils at a price of fifteen cents per meal. Visitors to the school have commented upon the spotless cleanliness of the kitchen and the general excellence of the meals.”

James’ report for fiscal 1948 again lavished similar praise upon the women who ran the cafeteria, but also noted federal aid to the program had decreased slightly while food costs continued to rise. The school began purchasing larger quantities of supplies to obtain them cheaper through bulk purchases. In spite of these efforts, the school was forced to raise the prices of the meals to students from fifteen cents to twenty cents for grades 1-5 and twenty-five cents for grades 6-8.

According to the caption on the rear of this photograph, it was taken in the late 1940’s in the new cafeteria at the Staples Elementary School.

State and federal guidelines provided instruction and advice for those who prepared the meals for the children. They were taught the value of the different combinations of foods needed to reach both the nutritional and caloric goals in a well-balanced diet.

For hot lunches, a typical school menu for the week in 1955 (actual menu as posted in the Bridgeport Post) would have been: Monday: spaghetti and meatballs, jello, and milk. Tuesday: meatloaf with gravy, mashed potatoes, buttered peas, bread and butter, peach halves and milk. Wednesday: macaroni with cheese and tomatoes, coleslaw, sweet pickles, bread and peanut butter, tapioca cream pudding, and milk. Thursday: frankfurters on rolls with mustard, potato chips, sauerkraut, applesauce cake, and milk. Friday: Cod fish sticks with tartar sauce, buttered rice, Harvard beets, ice cream, and milk. 

The above menu likely met the nutritional goals set forth in the federal and state guidelines, but it also showed why so many students of that era chose to bring their own lunch to school (myself included on more days than I chose to partake of what was offered on the menu). Sweet pickles with macaroni, cheese, and tomatoes??? Harvard beets with fish??? Yuck!!!! And let’s not even talk about milk with spaghetti and red sauce. Nutrition aside, some of the combinations offered were not very friendly to the palate.

Over the ensuing years, meals at school have seen the expansion of the menus to more resemble those of a fast-food restaurant than a school cafeteria. The extensive selection of items on the menu seems now to far exceed the need for a little variety. Some of the current lunch choices at Joel Barlow include Mac and Cheese, meat lover’s pizza, classic cheeseburger, and buffalo ranch chicken wrap. While those menus certainly contain additional choices that are more health oriented, one has to wonder how many teens voluntarily choose nutrition over taste.

The elementary school menus have a lesser selection. A recent Staples Elementary menu included meatballs in zesty marinara over penne pasta, herbed broccoli and cauliflower, fresh orange wedges and milk.  Perhaps the fish sticks, Harvard beets, and ice cream weren’t such a bad combination after all.

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By Bruce Nelson

Director of Research for the Historical Society of Easton Town Co-Historian for the Town of Redding, Connecticut Author/Publisher at Sport Hill Books