In this this interview, Dr. Carrie Tippen
talks with A.R. Ruis
about the 2017 book Eating to Learn: Learning to Eat The Origins of School Lunch in the United States –
published in 2017 by Rutgers University Press. Ruis narrates the development of school lunch programs from the late 19th century to the present, describing the evolution from locally organized charitable initiatives into the federally funded and managed programs that we know today. While school lunches seem almost inseparable from the American public school experience, Ruis explains that it was not clear in the 19th century whether schools had the ethical obligation or even the legal right to provide food. Ruis argues that the decision to supply lunches for students extends from constitutive moments in history when schools became a site for distributing health and wellness services of many kinds.
Through case studies of Chicago, New York, and rural schools in the Midwest, Ruis demonstrates that while most schools followed a similar path to establishing lunch programs – starting with lunches provided by a private, charitable group and eventually being taken under school board control – the results varied greatly based on the challenges of the particular area and the philosophy of the school board. Through an extended discussion of the National School Lunch Act of 1946, Ruis describes a key tension still at work in school lunch debates today; that is, whether school lunch is a program for providing nutrition to children or providing a predictable market for surplus agricultural commodities. Ruis concludes, “History suggests that without development of a system that integrates eating and learning, that values skilled labor and community involvement, and that privileges children’s health over agricultural protection, malnourishment will continue to be ‘our greatest producer of ill health.’”
A. R. Ruis
is a historian of medicine and a learning scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. You can find him on Twitter at @AndrewRuis.
Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches courses in American Literature. Her 2018 book, Inventing Authenticity: How Cookbook Writers Redefine Southern Identity
(University of Arkansas Press), examines the rhetorical strategies that writers use to prove the authenticity of their recipes in the narrative headnotes of contemporary cookbooks. Her academic work has been published in
Food and Foodways, American Studies, Southern Quarterly, and
Food, Culture, and Society.