NYPL Exhibitions

Early School Lunch

The first public school lunches in New York City cost 3 cents. The School Lunch Committee, an independent charity, believed that even poor families could afford that amount, and that paying for lunch rather than receiving one as a handout would dignify the transaction. (Pupils who could not pay for lunch could earn it by serving their classmates on the lunch line.) Mabel Kittredge, chair of the committee, also insisted that the meals be hot and healthful. Unlike most reformers, she saw the importance of offering students what she called “the foodstuffs of their race.” Irish children received hearty soups, Italian students were given minestra and macaroni, and Jewish children ate vegetarian or kosher meals.

By 1913 seven schools were participating, and by 1920 the program was under the Board of Education.Early results were just what the organizers had hoped: according to The New York Times, undernourished children who ate school lunches gained three times as much weight as boys and girls who did not have access to the program.