The School Lunch That Saved Cincinnati

Cincinnati,  Ohio (author photo)Cincinnati, Ohio has a very special place in the celebration of National School Lunch week (October 14-18). For it was teacher Ella Walsh who, in the early 1900’s, started one of the nation’s earliest school feeding programs.

Walsh, who taught at Cincinnati’s Jackson School, saw children coming to class hungry. Times were tough. She knew they needed help. So Walsh and her assistants set up a lunchroom. The “penny lunch” program was started.

Children who could afford it would pay a penny and get a lunch. Most could not afford, but still would receive the meal. Soup, spaghetti, rice, beans and fruit made up an early menu of the “penny lunches.”

The “penny lunches” spread to more parts of the city and even other cities. Dr. John Withrow was quoted as saying “started, you cannot stop them.” These were meals children and their families could count on, no matter what the circumstances. And there were rough times they had to face.

During World War One, many breadwinners were overseas with the Army and malnutrition became a bigger crisis according to a Cincinnati Enquirer report. Having “penny lunches” was vital for families facing this strain. The Cincinnati Post reported in 1933 that these school meals saved the lives of children during the Great Depression.

Then there are the little unsung heroes of Cincinnati. During World War II, the Cincinnati Times Star told the story of 10 year-old Charles Graff Jr., who collected sales tax stamps. He gave the stamps to his school so they could be redeemed and pay for school lunches for children in need. Graff had to study at home because he had the disease hemophilia. But he kept collecting the stamps and encouraging others to contribute. His father worked at the Red Top Brewing Company and got co-workers to give their stamps. Graff grew the school’s lunch fund.

Little by little the nation was building a national school lunch program, culminating in the law signed by President Harry Truman in 1946. When West Virginia had a hunger crisis during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations the school lunch and milk programs were safety nets.

The idea is simple common sense. Children should be spared from hunger. The food allows children to concentrate on learning. That is how a community and a nation succeeds. This is a lesson we must remember today and take care of our national school feeding.

I think we should resist cuts to school meals in the federal budget. The recent proposal by the House of Representatives to cut foods stamps also eliminates school meals for 210,000 children. What politicians and other leaders need to be doing is strengthening our hunger relief programs, especially in bad economic times.

The economy is struggling and the government shutdowns and other problems are certainly not helping the average citizen. Hunger can escalate in the presence of lack of leadership and cooperation in Washington, D.C. Food safety nets for children are especially important during these times.

School meals mean a lot to children here and across the world. I recently spoke to a man from Kenya who received school meals from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). They changed his life. In fact, the meals allowed him to become a world record holder in the marathon. His name is Paul Tergat, one of the fastest runners ever. Without the meals at school he never could have reached his potential.

That is something to remember with National School Lunch Week. These meals matter and we should do what we can so every child can receive them. Every child deserves that chance to reach their potential.

originally published at The Huffington Post.

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Filed under global hunger, History

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