Beyond the Pail: The Advent of a Hot School Lunch

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

This is one of several posts leading up to our day-long Eating Through Time Festival on October 17, 2015, a celebration of food, cookery, and health. View the full program and register for the Festival.

It’s winter in Minnesota, 1916. You have to walk six miles to school (uphill, both ways?). By the time you get there, your lunch is frozen. “In this condition,” explained Nellie Wing Farnsworth in the pamphlet The Rural School Lunch, “it is not very appetizing and it is not much better even if it has thawed out.”1

“Packing the luncheon.” In Sandwall, The School Lunch, c1920.

The Rural School Lunch, which focuses on schools in Minnesota in 1916, and The School Lunch, which focuses on schools in Massachusetts circa 1920, both describe the challenges of feeding rural students hot meals long before the advent of the National School Lunch Program in 1946.

As the pamphlets explain, students brought cold lunches from home. The nutritional value of those lunches was a concern, especially as lunch was often the main meal for farm families—one school children missed.1 In contrast, wrote Farnsworth, “Little thought or attention is given to the school lunch in many cases. When the pail or basket is opened it is found to contain cold pancakes, salt pork, cold potatoes, pie and bottles of cold tea or coffee. None of these foods is suited to the needs of the child and, as a rule, they all prove unpalatable and indigestible.”1

A selection of lunchboxes in Farnsworth, The Rural School Lunch, 1916 (top) and Sandwall, The School Lunch, c1920 (bottom).

A selection of lunchboxes in Farnsworth, The Rural School Lunch, 1916 (top) and Sandwall, The School Lunch, c1920 (bottom).

While some schools figured out ways to heat up lunches brought from home—in Wisconsin and elsewhere, students were encouraged to bring lunch in canning jars, which teachers placed in tubs of water atop the schools heater or stove—efforts to provide nutritious hot meals made at school took hold by the 1920s.2

Supplementing the box lunch with a hot dish, wrote The School Lunch author Alzira Wentworth Sandwall, had enormous benefits. Student table manners improved, students and teachers had a forum for conversation (“current events can be discussed and helpful conversation can be encouraged”), and nutrition education became part of the school day.3

“Hot lunch, Russell Mountain School, Hampden County.” In Sandwall, The School Lunch, c1920.

But perhaps most important was that student performance improved. Afternoon discipline became easier once students had enjoyed a nutritious meal. And students who appeared to be lost causes began to shine, like this child in Holyoke, Massachusetts:

One girl in the third grade was especially anemic, and was in the habit of falling asleep every afternoon. She became a regular patron of the canteen, and after two weeks she ceased to fall asleep. She was thought to be mentally deficient until the advent of the canteen, when she began to receive 100 per cent in some of her work.3

But how could schools provide hot meals to students? Programs across the country varied greatly, and only some had public funding.4 In most places, like the schools described by Sandwall and Farnsworth, hot lunches came about through donations of time and labor. Both pamphlets contain ideas for fundraising to pay for ingredients and utensils, such as food sales or a “shower”: a teacher selected utensils at a local store, asked women connected to the school to purchase them, and turned it into an afternoon party.1,3  And both have lists of recommended recipes, a large portion of them simple soups.

“Oil stove and cupboards improvised from packing boxes.” In Farnsworth, The Rural School Lunch, 1916.

Farnsworth goes into great detail on how to create food and utensil storage areas on a budget. She also breaks down the process of meal management, recommending teachers assign four “housekeepers” each week, boys and girls who will cook, serve, set the table, wash the dishes, clean the storage areas and stove, carry in the water, sweep the floors, and take out the garbage under teacher supervision.1

“Redding up.” In Farnsworth, The Rural School Lunch, 1916.

Providing a hot lunch required enormous effort on the part of teachers, students, and the surrounding community. But as Sandwall stated, “There are very few schools where it is absolutely impossible to serve at least one hot dish, and no better work can be done for the health of the school children than making it possible for every one of them to have a hot, nourishing luncheon.”3


1. Farnsworth NW. The rural school lunch. St. Paul: Webb publishing company,; 1916. Available at:;view=1up;seq=7. Accessed August 27, 2015.

2. Gunderson GW. National School Lunch Program (NSLP)| Early Programs by States. United States Dep Agric Food Nutr Serv. 2014. Available at: Accessed August 26, 2015.

3. Sandwall AW. The School lunch /. s.n.,; 1920. Available at: Accessed August 27, 2015.

4. Levine S. School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 2008.