Early last year the news media reported on a surge in what has been called “lunch shaming”: practices that deliberately and publicly humiliate children whose parents have not settled their school lunch accounts. When this story broke I was in the midst of writing about school meals in Britain during the 1920s and 30s for a book that I am working on about government food programs in the United Kingdom from the 1830s through the 1960s. The practices of lunch shaming in the United States in the past few years have included: dumping students’ lunches in the trash and refusing to feed them, substituting less nutritious cheese sandwiches for hot meals, stamping the children’s arms with phrases such as “I Need Lunch Money,” compelling children to wear wrist bands marking them as debtors, and having these children clean the cafeteria tables in front of their peers. None of these strategies were deployed in Britain in the interwar period, but the idea that school meals could be a source of humiliation was alive and well. In fact it is hard to ignore that understanding the history of school meals, which were provided in many countries starting in the twentieth century, is essential to formulating a workable and non-stigmatizing program in today’s schools.
In 1906, the United Kingdom introduced a school meals program to address the fact that children from poor families often came to school hungry and thus could not take full advantage of the public education system. Participating school districts used local tax dollars and grants from the Board of Education to feed children gratis at school if their family’s income fell below a locally-determined poverty line. Lunchroom facilities were rarely available within schools before the second half of the twentieth century. This meant that the children receiving free school meals were often marched into the middle of town to a “Feeding Centre.” They were thus conspicuous recipients of the state’s largesse. These Feeding Centres were sometimes established in buildings associated with charity, such as a Salvation Army hall, or with the shame of poverty, such as an old workhouse. Throughout the Depression years then, school meals were inherently stigmatizing. Even families that were eligible sometimes rejected them, mothers often starving themselves in order to feed their children without relying on government food.
Those who accepted the meals were rarely treated to anything that could have materially effected the chronic malnourishment that intensified during the Depression. School meals were primarily intended to fill bellies and were not particularly nourishing. This was despite the explosion of nutritional knowledge newly available in the interwar period. A school meal generally consisted of mounds of mashed potatoes, minced meats or stews, reconstituted dried or overcooked fresh vegetables, and stodgy desserts. Fresh fruits and raw vegetables were rare except in communities that in the late 1930s experimented with cold meals: nutritional sandwiches accompanied by milk, salad, and fruit. These were healthy, cheaper, well-liked by the children, and could be eaten with their hands. The hot dinners, however, required utensils but students were rarely provided with more than a single spoon. Forks were scarce and knives unheard of as the supervisors feared that the children of the poor were unruly “wild animals.” These “low grade children,” it was argued, could not be trusted and “these implements might be dangerous in [their] hands.”
Supervisors feared that a child might “stick a fork into his next door neighbour out of mischief or in a quarrel.”
Up through the 1930s then, the children of the chronically unemployed desperately needed these school meals. But accepting them came at a price, as they were humiliating for the children and their parents. It was not until the outbreak of the Second World War that the nature of school meals changed significantly. In 1943, the British government announced that its objective was to make school meals available to at least 75% of schoolchildren. To achieve this, the 1944 Education Act turned the voluntary provision of meals into a compulsory service and began to take their nutritional components more seriously. While minimal fees would be charged to parents who could afford to pay, all children were to be fed together and no distinction made between those receiving free meals and those who were self-funded. These changes reflected a wartime ideology that constructed children as citizens and positioned the state as responsible for their wellbeing.
The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2017 that forbids the practices used to humiliate children with outstanding school lunch debts was introduced in Congress last May. One can only hope that Congress learns from the past because the history of the school lunch program in Britain provides important insight into how we treat students in lunchrooms across the United States today. Why would we choose to shame children when providing them with a nutritious lunch in ways that do not stigmatize or humiliate them could in fact teach all of our young people that they too are citizens whom we respect and cherish?
Nadja Durbach was born in the United Kingdom. She grew up in Canada and attended the University of British Columbia, earning a BA (Hons.) in 1993. In 2000 she completed her PhD at the Johns Hopkins University and joined the faculty of the University of Utah’s History Department where she is currently a Professor. She is the author of Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907 and Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture. She is currently working on a book entitled, Many Mouths: State Feeding in Britain from the Workhouse to the Welfare State.