Tag Archives: Penny Lunch

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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Fighting Hunger in America and the Penny Lunch Tradition

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 United States Department of Agriculture report that 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.

Originally distributed by the History News Service.

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Filed under History, Hunger in America