While the Dies Committee peddled sensation and reaped headlines, Congress was following its usual practice of scrimping on operating funds for its fiefdom, the District of Columbia. The District, an economic and political vassal of the Congress, had no self-government, no representation in the House or Senate, and no voting rights; its citizens were not allowed even to vote for president and vice president. This arrangement had long been a source of frustration for D.C. residents, but as a practical matter, as 1938 ended its burden fell most heavily upon the poor children of the District. The funds that paid for WPA-prepared hot school lunches dried up just in time for Christmas.
More than 5,000 children received the lunches daily. They usually consisted of sandwiches, soup, or a hot plate such as meat loaf or spaghetti; fruit; and a dessert of pudding, applesauce, or prunes. Each child also got a third of a quart of milk with the meal. The District school system had intended to keep the program going over the Christmas holiday, which lasted from December 23 to January 3, since most of the families could not afford to provide the same level of nutrition. But not only did funds for the lunches run short, the schools themselves were so broke they could not afford to keep the boilers lighted in ninety of the buildings so as to give the children a warm place to eat the lunches school officials despaired of being able to provide.
“Take that buttery thought with your Christmas turkey,” the Washington Times editorialized on December 21, criticizing the “$10,000-a-year Congressmen, to whom it has never apparently occurred that you can’t control a hungry kid’s appetite by a calendar.”
Hot school lunches had been a feature of the relief program almost from the beginning. Hopkins had begun the practice of providing them in public schools under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in 1933. By January 1934, the program was serving 4,000 students in seventy-eight schools in the District of Columbia under the Civil Works Adminstration. Then Eleanor Roosevelt took the project under her wing and pushed to improve the quality of the meals.
Predictably, conservatives protested anything they saw as undermining self-sufficiency. Rufus S. Lusk, spokesman for the Washington Taxpayers’ Protective Association, had objected to the earmarking of District relief funds for free school lunches before a Senate subcommittee that was considering the relief appropriation bill in March 1935. “If free school lunches should be furnished,” he asked, “why not clothes and shoes?”
Voices that objected to preventing malnutrition in poor schoolchildren were a minority, however. By 1936, the WPA had received so many applications from local parent-teacher associations and boards of education that the program was expanded nationwide under the Division of Women’s and Professional Projects, and now included parochial as well as public schools. February 1936 saw the program in the District of Columbia doubled to cover 8,200 students. That March, in Tennessee, Elizabeth Coppedge, the state director of the women’s division, announced that the WPA had served 1.25 million hot lunches to rural schoolchildren and that in some counties school attendance had increased by 37 percent. School officials in Minnesota, where the program was serving 7,500 children, called it “the best truant officer the schools have ever had.” Indiana tested the program in five cities before taking it statewide in June 1937 and feeding up to 6,000 grade-school children. In Augusta, Georgia, school nurses saw malnourished children gaining weight—an average of five pounds in a group of 1,000 children—and credited the lunch program.
Despite the WPA budget and job cuts in the fall of 1937, the program was set to expand exponentially with the beginning of the school year. Lunches were to be served at the rate of 500,000 a day, and Hopkins said hundreds of thousands of relief families would benefit. The menus were written by WPA dieticians with an eye to filling nutritional gaps in the children’s home diets, and prepared and cooked by WPA employees using school facilities if possible. If not, the food was cooked at centralized kitchens and trucked to the schools where it was served. Most of it would be purchased, although in some areas, WPA gardeners and canners using school gardens and workrooms would add their products to the local food supplies.
As part of this WPA health initiative, WPA-paid nurses and doctors had made some 9 million home visits to examine and treat children. Home aides had helped with housework and child care in relief families where mothers had fallen sick. WPA housekeeping aides appeared at the doors of poor families on schoolday mornings to fix breakfast and send the children off to school. The thrust of these efforts, which evolved into one of the underpinnings of the modern welfare system, was to keep relief families together and avoid the expense of institutional care for children who previously would have been sent into orphanages or foster homes.
But in the fall of 1937, with the economy starting to slide into recession, finding local money to support the hot lunch program suddenly became a problem. This was especially true in the District of Columbia, where the Congress parceled out funds to the local government with the reluctance of a disapproving feudal lord. Even before the beginning of the school year in September, the District schools had announced that the lunch program was out of money and would be curtailed.
Washingtonians reacted by starting a self-help program. To keep the lunches going, residents formed the Citizens’ Emergency Committee for the Feeding of Hungry School Children and launched a donation drive. They won the support of the district’s newspapers, which ran stories about the drive accompanied by boxed displays containing the information that 7 cents would provide one hot lunch, $1 would provide two weeks of lunches, and $13 would feed a schoolchild for a year.
On October 18, District of Columbia police and firemen joined forces to stage a boxing benefit at Griffith Stadium, the home of the Washington Senators baseball team. Thousands crowded the event, the exhibition raised $11,000, and the committee, which had already acted on the advance ticket sales, got the school lunch program restarted the same day. More fund-raisers continued: a lecture on the wonders of the Caribbean, a benefit ball, and a magic show at the Belasco Theater. Sponsors pushed toward the goal of $100,000 to feed over 5,000 children for a year, which was where the program stood until the Christmas vacation cuts loomed at the end of 1938.
In New York, the city was contributing enthusiastically to the program and more than 100,000 children from relief families were eating hot school lunches every day, a number that would increase as time went on. Indeed, by May 1939, a record high of 119,000 New York schoolchildren participated in the lunch program, which employed 3,000 WPA-paid employees and used fifty trucks to deliver the lunches from centrally located kitchens to 846 elementary schools. Despite their hunger, the children’s tastes were not indiscriminate. They rejected the dieticians’ attempts to prescribe cabbage sandwiches, preferring peanut butter and jelly. They ate bananas at more than twice the rate of apples—2,792,881 pounds of bananas versus 1,273,745 pounds of apples in 1938. They turned up their noses at raw carrots until the dieticians became food stylists, trimming and slicing carrot sticks to make them appetizing.
Nationally, the beginning of 1939 saw the program pass 130 million meals served and more than 1 million children fed by the school lunches. In the face of the rising conservative opposition to the projects of the WPA, it was one of the agency’s most enduringly popular programs.