Today’s School Feeding Programs Grew Out of the “Penny Lunch” Tradition of a Century Ago

Hunger is on the rise in America. The Conference of Mayors recently reported that 86 percent of surveyed cities have seen increases in the need for emergency food aid. These findings coincide with a Feeding America reportthat 20 percent of children in the United States are hungry.

To turn the tide, we need to rekindle the passion and innovation of those who started the fight to end hunger in America more than a century ago.
In 1908 a Cincinnati school teacher, Ella Walsh, saw that her students were struggling. They looked pale. The students were not getting enough to eat. This obviously had serious health as well as educational repercussions. They could not learn on an empty stomach.
Walsh could see malnutrition before her eyes. But she did not just “file it and forget it.” She took action. She got some cooking materials together, found a room, arranged a table, and started serving what came to be known as the “penny lunch.”
This was one of the first attempts to provide school feeding for children. When the school superintendent stopped by to see Walsh’s program in action, he called it a major breakthrough in solving the “problem of the underfed child.”
And it caught on. A doctor quoted in the Cincinnati Post said the penny lunch programs were “like the measles: started, you cannot stop them.” Educators around the United States and even other countries started penny lunch programs. During the Great Depression, these meals were an ever-so-vital safety net.
Over the years, these early efforts at school feeding were strengthened, and in 1946 Harry Truman signed into law the National School Lunch program. Upon signing the legislation, Truman said, “No nation is any healthier than its children.”
Today millions of school children receive free or low price meals because of this initiative that had its earliest roots in the penny lunch. But just enacting this legislation was not enough. Congress had to make improvements when needed.
In 1968, for instance, Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern, who had witnessed the effect of child hunger in war-torn Europe, started a committee to bolster the existing national school lunch program so more needy children could take part. Their work added millions of children to a new national breakfast program and expanded summer feeding initiatives.
But despite these efforts the journey to end child hunger is far from complete. There are still huge gaps in participation in the national school breakfast and summer feeding; and when summer comes and schools close the drop in participation is dramatic.
In 2010, according to Feeding America, 20.6 million low-income children received free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program, but just 2.3 million participated in summer feeding. When schools close for the summer distribution of food becomes a huge problem.
Fixing this problem requires a combination of innovation, like Ella Walsh showed, and government support, as demonstrated by McGovern and Dole.
For instance, communities can help set up sites for summer feeding. If enough people volunteer and help spread the word about summer feeding, the problem of food distribution can largelybe solved at the local level. Mobile food pantries for summer are another option, but need support.
In Cincinnati, the tradition of school feeding started by Walsh continues with the universal free breakfast program for public schools. It’s called “Grab and Go,” and it gives every student a free meal in the morning. The program is supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, school boards, and donations by businesses and organizations. If more school systems adopted this program across the country, it would mean significant health and educational benefits for students.
Lisa Hamler-Fugitt of Second Harvest Foodbanks of Ohio says governments at all levels should do their part in “implementing universal free breakfast programs as the cornerstone of true education reform.”
When Ella Walsh kicked off the penny lunch to combat hunger, she said, “It is wonderful to watch the improvement in the children who have heretofore been underfed. Their little faces are rounded out and they are healthy, active human beings, interested in their work, progressing rapidly, a contrast to the pale, listless child of a few months before.”
The effect of this meal is just as important today. We know what a difference school feeding can make. Now there must be action to ensure that no child goes hungry and we that we continue America’s quest to end hunger.

William Lambers is an author and historian who partnered with the World Food Programme on the book Ending World Hunger:  School Lunches for Kids Around the World (2009).