School Lunch in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 14, 2012.

In 1946, the Federal Government passed the National School Lunch Act. It had been noted, during World War II, that 16% of draftable men had been underweight and ineligible for service. The effects of the Great Depression had taken a toll on children’s health. After the war, with the peacetime economy beginning to surge, there was both public and government support for implementation of a school lunch program. After all, how could the United States maintain superiority over the Soviet Union and international communism with a population that was skinny and ill fed? The irony of implementing a nation-wide federally funded nutrition program to defeat communism was willfully ignored.

Many parts of the country, including Exeter, had long had concerns about student undernourishment. As early as 1920 school superintendent Clifton Towle expressed concern in the annual school district report that, “provision be made for the preparation and serving of some very simple, hot and nourishing addition to the lunch brought from home.” Some students were clearly hungry and the school nurse reported that the two greatest health problems facing Exeter’s school children were poor dental health and undernourishment. The 1928 report found 396 student with ‘defective teeth’ and 38 suffering from malnutrition.

Local organizations responded to the need. Dental clinics were set up for students and were paid for by the West End Neighborhood Club. The Lions Club made contributions to provide milk for needy students. The milk fund was also assisted by a donor, who supported the effort for over nineteen years. Dr. Oscar Gilbert’s health report year after year listed this generous unknown donor, who, in 1946 was finally revealed to be Arthur Conner, a local businessman and philanthropist. The milk was a great help, although the goal of hot food was difficult to achieve. Schools were small and spread out across the town. Most students went home for lunch, but that didn’t guarantee a healthy lunch. Those remaining at school for the lunch hour commonly ate a very simple meal of bread and butter and perhaps some fruit.

Some of the town’s schools were able to provide a warm drink to students – although the reports do not specify what this might have been. It was considered quite a challenge to manage students during the noon hour. Traditionally, the teachers had this time to eat their own lunch and prepare for the afternoon classes. Some supervision of students who ‘stayed over’ at school was needed. In spite of the complicated logistics, both the superintendent and the health supervisor of schools repeatedly urged school lunch programs.

Wartime rationing became a reality in 1942 and everyone felt the pinch. ‘Thrift’ became a teaching-point to all local classrooms. The issue of school lunch was pushed aside while the nation re-tooled its industry to a wartime economy. At the end of the war, Congress took up the problem of underfed school children. Selective Service had unwittingly created a national database of the relative health of young men. Funds for launching school lunch programs became available in the late 1940s.

In Exeter, there were other school issues that took immediate need. The high schools were still gender segregated and elementary schools were sprinkled in diverse locations. In order to run an efficient school lunch program, centralized schools were needed. It also became evident, by the early 50s, that the school age population was exploding. More classroom space was needed, and this could only be accomplished by building new and bigger schools, which could be designed with lunchrooms and kitchens.

Exeter High School and the Robinson Seminary merged in 1955. Renovations to the Tuck High School building to accommodate the influx of students finally provided enough space for a hot lunch program. The Exeter News-Letter reported in September of 1956 that there were now four hundred high school students enrolled in the hot lunch program. “It wasn’t filet mignon to the strains of a string quartet a News Letter reporter experienced in the cafeteria of the Exeter High School last Tuesday forenoon, but what was dished out to him and over 400 students and teachers in two shifts was good, wholesome food. Baked ham, boiled macaroni, and beets was the principal fare served from the spotless kitchen. In addition, each serving tray contained a one-half pint bottle of milk, two slices of buttered bread and dessert choice of sliced pears or peaches in a large bowl – all for 30 cents!”

Elementary school students were, for a few years, served hot lunch at the unused Seminary Building before a working cafeteria was built at Lincoln Street School. By the 1960s, students no longer went home during the noon hour and such menu items as “luncheon meat, cheese slice, mashed potatoes, peas and cherry crunch” were featured.

Today’s lunch programs focus on healthy eating habits. Students are reminded of balanced meals and the benefits of fruits and vegetables. Although universally considered horrid by students, the complaints probably have more to do with individual food quirks and the pleasure of shared experiences than actual menu quality. The spaghetti at Lincoln Street School is quite tasty. Cooperative Middle School students are given options based on a fruit and vegetable rich diet and the a la carte kitchen at Exeter High School provides some of the tastiest wrap sandwiches in town. It’s a long way from the cold bread and butter sandwiches of their grandparents or wretched ‘baloney cups’ served to this writer in third grade back in 1971.

Photo caption: This photo ran on the front page of the Exeter News-Letter on September 20, 1956. The caption read: “Here is a general view of the cafeteria at the Exeter High School on Tuesday with the hot lunch program going into its second day of operation. This is the second of two groups who received meals in one hour. (Swiezynski Photo).”


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