NYPL Exhibitions

Charitable Meals

“Philanthropists may urge what reforms they will, —less crowding, purer air better sanitary regulations: but this question of food underlies all.”

—Helen Campbell, Darkness and Daylight, or, Lights and Shadows of New York Life, 1892

During the last decades of the 19th century, as the city’s crowded tenement neighborhoods became increasingly notorious, philanthropists and reformers began to practice charity in a new way. Rather than simply handing out food or cash, they spent time with the poor themselves, trying to learn more about their social and economic conditions so that they could offer meaningful help, including education and job training. Jacob Riis, the muckraking police reporter at the New-York Tribune who specialized in exposés of slum life, was an influential figure among these reformers. He and others believed that teaching the poor to cook and eat healthfully was an important key to progress.

This new thinking about charity gave rise to New York’s school lunch program, which began in 1908. It was clear to progressive reformers that many schoolchildren in the city’s poor neighborhoods were undernourished and therefore too tired and listless to learn. The New York School Lunch Committee, an independent charity headed by the activist Mabel Kittredge, introduced the city’s first school lunch at P.S. 51, an elementary school on West 44th Street with a high population of German and Irish students. Lunch included thick slices of bread, a warm soup or other entrée, and for dessert a sweet potato, sweet crackers, or cake. In the course of the next half century, school lunch became a federal program and one of the nation’s most important initiatives in child nutrition.