The Ethics of Hunger and the Assembly of Society: The Techno-Politics of the School Meal in Modern Britain

How did we pass from a usage of the social understood as a problem of poverty, the problem of others, to its current definition in terms of a general solidarity and the production of a life-style; what enabled it to be made into a showcase for development, whose defence comes before all else, to be offered to the world at whatever cost?
Gilles Deleuze, in Jacques Donzelot, The Policing of Families, xxvii

The school meal is a peculiarly modern social institution. A late-nineteenth-century invention of European philanthropists, it soon spread across the globe as a central tool of welfare and development programs, until it became a favored target of neoliberal welfare reforms during the closing decades of the twentieth century.[1] The history of the school meal can then be seen as intricately related to a broader history of the social—that is to say, how society came to be perceived not only as distinct from other domains such as the economy or politics, but as the key site for the government of modernity. It is more than twenty-five years since Gilles Deleuze first provoked us to think about how quickly the social—as a new mentality of government articulated through a hybrid set of techniques designed to secure society from the vagaries of the market and the dislocations of modern life—came to be taken for granted. He was, of course, asking this question at precisely the moment when neoliberal governments began to proclaim the benefits of postsocial forms of government in ways that suggested that far less had been taken for granted than Deleuze imagined. Yet, surprisingly, especially at an intellectual moment when we are routinely told to denaturalize and historicize everything, this recent history has encouraged few to take the social seriously as a historical category.[2] In what follows, I belatedly take up Deleuze’s invitation to track the rise of the social by focusing on how it transformed the meaning of hunger in modern Britain. To make this a manageable task, I focus on just one response to what came to be seen in the late nineteenth century as the social problem of hunger—the school meal. In particular, I am interested in how the school meal helped to generate an expansive redefinition of the social, away from the identification of the hungry as a particular problem to assembling a new and universal conception of the good society.

It is tempting to suggest that school meals in Britain have attracted more historical attention than those in other countries because its postwar historians could not forget their own experiences of spam, tapioca, and boiled cabbage at school. Yet, in fact, the histories we have are much less interested in food or the social meanings of the meal than in charting how school meal policies reflected the rise and fall of political ideologies, welfare states, and standards of living.[3] In these accounts, the school meal is invariably a sideshow to the main event, the outcome of a zero-sum game in which the labor movement competed for control of a centralized state by articulating new ideologies of welfare and entitlement that would alleviate the hunger of those whose socioeconomic interests it represented. Hunger often remains an unproblematic category in these histories, presented as a self-evident material condition that can be affirmed by ahistorically reproducing the forms of nutritional representation by which it was measured.[4] In contrast, I want to suggest that if we take the history of the school meal on its own terms, hunger appears also as a decidedly slippery cultural category. Indeed, as we shall see, the contests over the meaning and management of hunger generated their own remarkably diffuse networks of power, as well as new understandings of the social and its mode of government.[5] Seen in this way, the school meal can be seen less as an outcome of social democracy and the welfare state than as partly constitutive of them.

My contention is that the seemingly mundane practicalities of identifying hungry children and feeding them at school were intricately connected to a broader history of the changing meanings of hunger and ideas about the responsibilities of government. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, hunger, and especially the hunger of children, was increasingly seen to dramatize the systemic failures of the market as well as to threaten the political stability, racial health, and imperial strength of the nation. A decidedly ancient condition gained new significance as a social problem and—because the hunger of one was now the concern of all—demanded a new mentality of government to act on it in the interests of society as a whole. If this broad ethical shift enabled the school meal to be imagined as a potential solution to hunger’s corrosive grip on society, it was not the product of any one politics or ideology. It is for this reason that I am wary of solely crediting the men or (more often) women pioneers of the labor movement with having delivered school meals to modern Britons. Rather, in my account, agency is relocated, or just redistributed, so that it is the emergent social and nutritional sciences that play the critical role in the actual instantiation of the school meal. By promising a scientific mechanism for identifying hungry children and calculating the minimum quantities of food required to satiate them, social and nutritional scientists provided ways of translating and depoliticizing the new social ethics of hunger into practical administrative techniques for the provision of school meals by the state. I have called this attempt to translate broader ethical problems into a set of administrative questions “techno-politics,” to signal both their failure to insulate technical systems from ethico-political questions, and their productive power in invoking a model of the good society—its patterns of sociability, solidarity, and civility—on behalf of which the state increasingly claimed to govern. Assembling this new vision of society through the school meal was a complex and difficult process. Alongside social and nutritional scientists, it demanded the expertise of educationalists, architects, engineers, and industrial designers, for it depended on the crafting of an appropriate moral and material environment for the performance of the new social rights and responsibilities inscribed in the school meal. Both human and nonhuman obstacles frustrated the proliferating forms of technical expertise that addressed the provision and delivery of school meals, compromising the model of society they sought to instantiate. This broader redistribution of agency in the making of Britain’s school meals service does not diminish the contribution of human actors or their local political struggles. It is an insistence that would perhaps be less necessary had our histories of the social and the welfare state not remained unquestioned for so long.

My account of how the seemingly innocuous everyday practices of the school meal generated new networks of power and understandings of society draws upon the Foucauldian analytic of governmentality. Instead of seeing power as concentrated in a centralized and monolithic state, those who have taken up Michel Foucault’s suggestive essay on governmentality take power to reside in, and roam across, diffuse and multiple coordinates. Viewed in this way, power is not exercised solely by the state over its population, but is mobilized as new forms of expertise address different objects of reform, intervening in ways that produce subjects with the appropriate mentality to govern themselves from a discrete distance.[6] As others have recently argued, it is an analytic that must not be deployed too schematically without heeding the always already fractured nature of the techno-political interventions of experts, or the ways in which they were invariably frustrated by contingencies beyond their control.[7] Part of my aim here is to demonstrate that the empirical work of the historian, who follows the devil into the details, can be theoretically productive. If we are more attentive to the often confused and conflicting rationales of new techniques and tactics for governing at a distance, as well as the failures and resistances that invariably greeted them (inciting, of course, further, fresh reforming projects), we may become less concerned with delineating epochal shifts from liberal to social modes, or cast-iron differences between metropolitan and colonial forms of governmentality.[8] As I hope to show, the changing ethics of hunger and the techno-politics of the school meal serve to remind us that all governmentalities stutter in their realization and remain deeply implicated in each other. It should also demonstrate that in tracing the assembly of society in modern Britain, we need a diffuse and mobile view of power and agency that recognizes, despite the determined efforts of us moderns, the inseparability of the ethical from the technical, the moral from the physical, the human from the nonhuman.[9]

It is difficult to grasp the significance of the new social ethic toward hunger that emerged during the nineteenth century without recalling its prior dispensations. Piero Camporesi’s sweeping historical vision of the apocalyptic famished world of early modern Europe and its fevered alimentary imagination reminds us that there was a time in Europe when hunger was endemic and considered an unfortunate fact of life, beyond the government of man.[10] Less metaphorically minded historians of early modern England, however, agree that such providential fatalism was offset by a complex set of paternalist checks and charitable balances.[11] By the eighteenth century, as E. P. Thompson demonstrated, these had come to inform a moralized view of emerging market relations that legitimized food riots and a range of other plebeian “emergency routines” against hated middlemen in times of dearth.[12] Like Karl Polanyi before him, Thompson wanted to dramatize the great transformation wrought by a political economy that had abstracted the market from its social relations. From Bernard Mandeville to Thomas Malthus, hunger was now to be understood in terms of the moral failure of individuals to learn the disciplines of a free market.[13] Despite Adam Smith’s insistence that hunger was not a necessary spur to labor, that no moral stigma should haunt those who suffered as a consequence of markets that were everywhere in chains, the evangelical revival bolstered the less optimistic Malthusian view of hunger as a mark of moral failure, if a natural and necessary evil. If the bad news was that man’s sinful nature ensured that population growth always outstripped the market’s capacity to generate food, the good news was that hunger would helpfully eradicate the irredeemable and bring salvation to others. It not only proved an indispensable incentive to industry but could, in the chilling words of Joseph Townsend, “teach decency and civility, obedience and subjection, to the most brutish, the most obstinate, and the most perverse.”[14] Although such views were contested by some, they became hegemonic during the “Age of Atonement” that was the first half of the nineteenth century.[15] Ideologically disparate groups—political economists, evangelical social reformers, and utilitarians—were increasingly unfaltering in their belief that philanthropic relief would only further demoralize the poor, rendering them more, not less, dependent. In this new market ethic, hunger was understood not as a problem of but as a solution to the ills of political economy—it became a key tool of market discipline.

The calculated administration of this tool was a central preoccupation of the new forms of statecraft emerging in early-nineteenth-century imperial Britain. Mike Davis has reminded us that it reached its fullest experimental expression in the colonies, where British officials presided over the loss of millions of lives to famine in Ireland and India, believing that they would provide (in the words of Charles Trevelyan) “the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected.”[16] Yet what was possible in the colonies proved harder to practice at home. The New Poor Law of 1834 infamously sought to effect a similar transformation through the principle of “less eligibility,” according to which conditions in the workhouse would serve as a deterrent by ensuring that standards of living within it never reached those of the lowest-paid laborer outside it. Nowhere was that principle better illustrated than in the insufficiency of the workhouse diet, which was intended to compel the poor to labor, with the idea that hunger would help to remoralize them as productive subjects. The workhouse, like those other great disciplinary institutions the prison and the army, became a veritable laboratory for rather clumsy dietetic investigations into minimum levels of healthy and productive subsistence.[17] The calculated inhumanity of this use of hunger as a disciplinary tool appalled not only the Tory paternalists and radicalized working men and women of the Anti–Poor Law Movement, but also, less predictably, the statistician William Farr at the new Registrar General’s Office. The office was created in 1837 to record the births and deaths of what were confidently expected to be ever-healthier and wealthier Britons, but Farr used its annual returns to routinely record how many continued to die of starvation rather than enter the workhouse.[18] In 1845–1846, at the height of this controversy, the Andover Scandal broke, exposing a brutal workhouse regime in which starving inmates ate putrid flesh off bones (some reportedly human) that were supposed to be ground for fertilizer.[19] As the lurid details of the scandal receded, news came of the horrific scale of the famine in Ireland, causing even the most strident Christian political economist, Thomas Chalmers, to revise his providential view of hunger as due punishment for the idle and sinful.[20] The claim that hunger would remoralize the poor, teaching them decency, civility, and industry, began to look decidedly shaky.

I do not mean to suggest that this Malthusian ethic, which viewed the hungry as the immoral architects of their own misery, suddenly receded by the 1840s. It was only slowly challenged by a growing empathy for the hungry as innocent victims of systems beyond their control. This ethical shift was generated by the inability of the old Malthusian model to make sense of the hunger made manifest during events such as the famine in Ireland or, later, Lancashire’s Cotton Famine, which, in turn, helped facilitate new humanitarian and political responses to hunger. In documenting the tragic human scale of hunger, novelists and journalists did much to create a humanitarian narrative for it, making their burgeoning reading publics bear witness to, and sentimentally connect with, the suffering of particular individuals.[21] From the forlorn request of a ravenous Oliver Twist for more gruel, starving women and children became staples of famine literature and the accounts of metropolitan social explorers, for it was they who most clearly demonstrated the moral innocence of the hungry.[22] By the early 1860s, as journalists reported on the scale of Lancashire’s Cotton Famine to elicit charitable donations from the humanitarian publics that their shocking reports had helped create, the pitiful figures of hungry women and children were joined by the emaciated unemployed man as victims of a political economy beyond their control.[23] There was no political coherence to the humanitarian sympathies generated by these literatures; they were certainly not the sole preserve of the fledgling labor movement. The Anti–Corn Law League made the promise of a bigger loaf, once the market had been freed of protectionist impediments, central to its campaign. Indeed, it was that apostle of free trade Richard Cobden himself who did much to publicize the plight of Lancashire during the Cotton Famine, persuading the government to allow Poor Law guardians to raise loans for the financing of public works as well as encouraging the creation of soup kitchens to relieve the hunger of the distressed. Even for those most wedded to a liberal political economy, hunger was seen as a marker less of the moral weakness of the poor than of their heroic strength and virtue in the face of a failing political economy. Philanthropic social intervention would remain necessary until markets had been sufficiently liberalized to deliver the wealth of nations. Hunger was now a social problem.

We can see a new conception of the social being consolidated here. For much of the first half of the nineteenth century, the social had been the dustbin of liberalism, where those unable to improve themselves, or to be improved, had been subjected—the arena where difficult but discrete problems (the unsanitary, the poor, the criminal) were consigned for scrutiny and disciplinary regulation. Slowly, during the second half of the century, the social was reconceptualized as a system, the connective tissue between economics and politics that would enable the stability of those domains to be maintained. The nascent discipline of sociology, which, after the establishment of the Social Science Association in 1857, attracted the leading intellectuals and politicians of the age, posited the social as the key domain for the government of modernity.[24] Viewed from this perspective, hunger was no longer simply a problem for the hungry; it threatened political stability, economic production, and racial efficiency in ways that drew all of society into its vortex. It demanded not just philanthropic intervention but forms of statecraft that reflected a new ethic of collective responsibility.

It was in this context that school meals first emerged in Britain. The introduction of compulsory primary education by the Education Acts of 1870 and 1880 was itself a startling, bold acknowledgment of the state’s new ethical obligations. In the broader interests of society, all children were now to be educated, regardless of their parents’ interests or objections. Many of those elected to the new local school boards (especially women, who were allowed to both vote and hold office) immediately raised the question of whether, now that the state had assumed this responsibility, it should go further still. They suggested not only that compulsory education had inadvertently made more children hungry because they were no longer able to contribute to the family income, but also that this hunger wasted the state’s precious resources because it impeded those children’s opportunity to learn. Although these critics were often women of the left—Annie Besant in London and Margaret McMillan in Bradford are the usual iconic examples[25]—they were never exclusively so, as was evident from their cooperation with the lady philanthropists who, during the 1880s, had begun to provide free school meals through organizations such as the Manchester and Salford Ladies Health Association and the London Free Dinner Association.[26] It is true that, from its inception in 1884, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), that curious amalgam of radical politics and Marxism, used school board elections to campaign for universal free school meals. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) followed suit from the mid-1890s, just as the SDF had begun to articulate a fuller package of state maintenance for schoolchildren.[27] Indeed, it was partly because school boards had been radicalized in this way that they were abolished by Balfour’s Conservative government in 1902. Yet by 1904, Bradford’s city council became the first to introduce free school meals, the culmination of a twenty-year campaign led by two members of the ILP, Margaret McMillan on the Bradford School Board and Fred Jowett on the city council, with the considerable help of Dr. John Kerr, whom the school board had made the country’s first school medical officer in 1892.[28] The same year that the battle was won in Bradford, Kerr (now chief medical officer to the London School Board) gave critical evidence to the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration, whose final report recommended the state provision of school meals. This call was heeded when the 1906 Education (Provision of Meals) Act enabled (but did not compel) local authorities to supply meals for “those unable by lack of food to take advantage of the education provided them.”[29] Although its voluntary nature and its allowance for recovering the costs from parents as well as from those who paid local property rates (both anathema to advocates of free universal provision) made the act more likely to attract significant cross-party support, its driving force was less its little-known Labour sponsor, W. T. Wilson, than Sir John Gorst (the Conservative MP partly responsible for the abolition of school boards) and Thomas Macnamara (a Liberal MP and ex-president of the National Union of Teachers).[30] It is unwise, then, to reduce the introduction of school meals to a matter of party politics; it owed more to a broader ethical shift in which people across the political spectrum recognized that hunger now had to be governed socially, especially that of schoolchildren in the wake of compulsory education. Yet if this recognition provided the ethical conditions for the emergence of the school meal, it was made practically possible by a new set of nutritional and social-scientific technologies that promised universal standards for identifying hungry bodies and the quantities of food required to relieve them. Bluntly put, it is hard to imagine school meals’ being legislatively provided without a mechanism for identifying who required them, let alone how much these children needed to be fed and at what cost. To be relieved by the state, hunger had to be more than just a vague category of sympathy; it had to be made amenable to precise measurement.

At the hands of chemists and medics, the science of nutrition, or dietetics as it was more often called, had gained greater attention and credibility as it investigated the nexus between health, economy, and productivity.[31] In 1834, the Poor Law Commissioners were dependent on past practice for establishing diets that conformed to the principle of less eligibility, but from the 1850s and 1860s, their calculations increasingly appealed to the authority of science.[32] Similarly, from the 1850s, the issue of food adulteration energized investigations into the properties of food and the biochemical processes of the human body while simultaneously cementing the connection of these forms of expertise to agencies of the state.[33] Despite the persistence of a promiscuous range of other forms of dietetic expertise, what emerged from the laboratories of chemical analysts and physiologists, as well as from the dietary investigations of medics, became known as the science of nutrition during the 1890s. Social scientists immediately recognized its potential for their work. In 1901, the social theorist J. A. Hobson predicted that it would become a “tributary science” informing sociology that would enable social investigators to calculate principles of social efficiency and define standards of dietary health capable of maximizing physical and mental production. In return, they would provide nutritionists with empirical knowledge of the dietary regimes and physical demands of different sections of the population, lending their abstract principles a specific social basis and utility.[34] That same year, Seebohm Rowntree used what he called the “new knowledge of nutrition” to measure poverty in York, calculating how much food (and at what cost) the human motor needed in order for people to remain healthy and productive members of society, and then compared the results to actual dietary practices. At last, it seemed, hunger could be scientifically defined as the failure to reach a minimum nutritional standard, and its social costs could be precisely measured in terms of health, productivity, racial efficiency, and social stability.[35]

The Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration of 1904 made much use of the social and nutritional sciences in its examination of the redeemable environmental conditions, rather than irredeemable hereditary factors, responsible for the decaying physique of the social body.[36] Chief among these, most expert witnesses concurred, was the issue of food and nutrition.[37] And nowhere was “the extreme importance of nutrition” more evident than among impoverished schoolchildren, whose hunger impeded their education and damaged their physical development. Accordingly, the committee proposed “social education” in the nutritional and domestic sciences to working-class mothers so that they could more efficiently marshal their meager resources, as well as school meals for those children whose mothers were incapable of learning these lessons. This prioritizing of nutritional questions meant that alongside the familiar expert witnesses of social life (factory and school inspectors, health visitors, and charity workers) came the new figures of the social and nutritional scientist. Both Rowntree and Charles Booth testified to the scale and deleterious social effects of poverty, as well as the horrible inadequacy of the poor’s diet. Their authority emanated not from their proximity to, or familiarity with, the poor, but from the scientific techniques that enabled them to investigate the problems of poverty from a comfortably objective distance. These techniques—the local case study, the statistical sample, the trained interviewer who tabulated the classification of social types and practices on inquiry cards to await their aggregation into charts of statistical tables, graphs, and maps—promised standardized, and thus comparable, systems of measurement across time and space.[38] Similarly, the work of nutritionists was repeatedly invoked as a way of scientifically tackling the question of diet and minimum needs. Several witnesses referred to the work of D. N. Paton and J. C. Dunlop at Glasgow, as well as W. O. Atwater in the United States, while Robert Hutchison, author of Food and the Principles of Dietetics and physician at Great Ormond Street, was called as “a well-known authority on nutrition.”[39] Not all accepted these new forms of expertise. C. S. Loch’s criticism of Rowntree’s use of “dietetics” as too abstract and “unreal, in spite of its being set down in seemingly precise statistics,” resonated with several on the committee, as did his argument that since the infant science of nutrition had not yet “finally settled” how to calculate food values, its authority “cannot be accepted without demur as here applied.”[40] It was not just that there were competing assessments of the values of different foodstuffs, but there appeared to be little agreement as to the qualities or function of food or the quantities required to reach a minimum standard.

The uncertainty surrounding the authority of nutritional science, and thus its practical utility for the school meals service, did not recede in the following decades. The thermodynamic model that had informed Edwardian discussions of minimum dietaries, with its focus on the characteristics of food (carbohydrates, fats, proteins) as fuel and the energy requirements of the human motor, was increasingly challenged by a new biochemical emphasis on the quality (not quantity) of diet.[41] By 1918, the identification of diseases caused by specific dietary deficiencies, such as beriberi and rickets, led to the discovery of vitamins and heralded the arrival of a “newer [biochemical] knowledge of nutrition” that shifted attention from the quantities of food required for health and the efficiency of its use, to isolating the qualities of particular foodstuffs and tracking their specific physiological effects.[42] This was to have very dramatic consequences for the way we think about hunger and poverty, for both were completely redefined in terms of the quality of diet and health, what became known as malnutrition, rather than the quantitative lack of undernutrition.

Significantly, during the 1920s, much of the biochemical work that redefined hunger as malnutrition was conducted in the colonial laboratory by British nutritionists such as Robert McCarrison and John Boyd Orr.[43] If in Britain biochemical research relied heavily on feeding animals synthetic diets, the natural heterogeneity of colonial diets (untainted by commercially produced foodstuffs) provided ideal conditions for its translation to the human world. In 1918, McCarrison established a nutritional research unit at the Pasteur Institute in Coonor, where, instead of focusing on the recognized manifestations of deficiency diseases (such as beriberi, pellagra, scurvy, and rickets), he set out to discover less visible but more widespread forms of malnutrition that lowered vitality and resistance to disease.[44] Reproducing India’s dietary diversity in his laboratory, he then compared the health and physique of its peoples with those of his rats, mapping a marked decline in strength and vitality as a diet of wheat and meat in the north gave way to one based on rice and vegetables in the south.[45] (See Figures 1 and 2.) Like Orr, who was simultaneously conducting similar comparative studies of diet and physique among the Masai and Kikuyu in Kenya, McCarrison believed that if science could be made to prevail over custom and “religious prejudice” in questions of diet, the health and productivity of Indians would increase dramatically—an optimism later dented when Audrey Richards’s anthropological work in East Africa highlighted the deeply entrenched nature of dietary habits and the persistence of “primitive” food taboos in both metropolitan and colonial cultures.[46] If their work influenced the emergent discourse of colonial development, it also shaped discussions of the poor white in metropolitan Britain. In their hands, the standard-of-living question in Britain, the definition of what Rowntree called minimum human needs, had become, in part, a colonial calculation.[47]

Figures 1 and 2: McCarrison’s malnourished rats. From Sir Robert McCarrison, Nutrition and National Health (London, 1936), 18 and 24. Reproduced by permission of Wellcome Library, London.

Both Orr and McCarrison played central roles in the “Hungry England” debate, which began in 1933 when the Week-End Review sought a nutritional expert to scientifically settle its highly charged controversy about the scale of hunger in Britain.[48] Ironically, the resulting report exposed the still-fractious nature of nutritional knowledge and the less than disinterested spirit of its experts, provoking contention between two recently convened committees of nutritional experts at the Ministry of Health and the British Medical Association about what constituted a minimum nutritional requirement and how it should be calculated.[49] Their carefully crafted consensus was quickly shattered the following year by the formation of the Committee against Malnutrition and the Children’s Minimum Council, two leftist groups eager to draw attention to the scale of the newly expanded condition of malnutrition and its disproportionately corrosive effect on children.[50] They were to receive the substantial, and well- publicized, support of Orr and McCarrison, both of whom estimated that more than 20 million people in Britain, effectively half the population, were malnourished.[51]

At the heart of this debate was the question of how hunger as malnutrition should be defined and measured. Even those who championed the expanded biochemical definition of malnutrition recognized that the term had been used in a “loose and confused manner” to describe a host of conditions: those who did not eat enough food, those whose physiques were below “normal” or the locally “average” standards, those who suffered from a specific deficiency disease, and those whose nutritional health failed to meet the best attainable or “optimum” standards.[52] The problem of definition resolved itself into one of measurement—of how to translate knowledge of an adequate diet into a practical assessment of the malnourished. By 1935, the League of Nations had catalogued three basic systems of measurement—the anthropometric, the clinical, and the physiological—each with its own competing standards, techniques, and problems.[53] There were, for example, no fewer than five named anthropometric “indices of nutrition,” the “fallacies” of which “had been repeatedly described” even though they allowed for margins of error that ranged from 7 to 20 percent.[54] Clinical methods were no less problematic. The “Dunfermline scale,” used by Britain’s school medical officers before 1934, had several rivals—the Chittenden index, Pirquet’s index, and Raymond Franzen’s ACH index—each with its own competing techniques of measurement and systems of classification. No wonder the angry young man of letters Malcolm Muggeridge pithily observed of the “Hungry England” debate that the “under-nourished soon got forgotten in the excitement of deciding what was the measure of their under-nourishment.”[55]

What, you may reasonably be asking, did all these technical debates about nutritional standards and systems of measurement mean for the provision of school meals? The 1906 Education (Provision of Meals) Act enabled local authorities to provide school meals for children who were “unable by reason of lack of food to take advantage of the education provided them” by defraying their costs through a half-penny increase in the property rates, charitable donations, and the contributions of parents. In order to identify those children who needed free meals, as opposed to those who had to pay some of the cost—a distinction that helped mollify those critics who argued that the act abrogated parental responsibility in favor of the state maintenance of children[56]—the medical inspection was introduced with the creation of the School Medical Service in 1907. However, given the infant nature of this service before the Great War, most localities continued the old philanthropic practice of means testing, although procedures varied enormously between localities.[57] Even disregarding the inequities inherent in such local variations, the limits of means-tested provision were apparent when, with the outbreak of war in August 1914, the half-penny rate limit was rescinded, encouraging further expansion of the scheme to prevent the unrest anticipated to accompany the inevitable food shortages. This policy was later reaffirmed by the Education Act of 1921, despite the fact that the numbers of those being fed at school, which had risen during the first year of the war, quickly fell to below prewar levels by the armistice.[58] By the 1920s, the Board of Education was actively promoting medical inspections over the means test, with George Newman, then its chief officer of health, echoing Margaret McMillan’s argument that inspections were fairer, less humiliating, and more inclusive.[59] It soon became apparent that this was not necessarily the case. Newman frankly acknowledged that because there was “no absolute standard” by which to identify hungry children, much was left to the discretion of school medical officers, who were left to translate their broad clinical assessment of a child’s nutritional health on a classificatory scale that ranged from “good,” “normal,” “below normal,” to “bad.”[60] Critics were quick to point out that Newman’s criteria for nutritional health were so broad that many other environmental factors or diseases could be seen to adversely reflect it. This confusion was evident among local medical officers, who emphasized different indicators, had widely divergent ways of translating their clinical assessments on the scale, deployed their own idiosyncratic definitions of the standards, and invariably equated the “normal” with the local average. Given these problems, it appeared difficult to make comparisons between localities or to generate reliable national figures.[61] By 1933, as these problems were again publicized by the “Hungry England” debate, the Ministry of Health directed its Advisory Committee on Nutrition to devise standard tests for malnutrition that would help eradicate the vagaries of the system of classification. In the absence of a more “reliable yardstick,” it continued to favor broad clinical assessments and made only minor changes to the system of classification, which were subsequently adopted by the Board of Education.[62] It was not enough to silence the critics.[63] By 1940, even the Board of Education’s own senior medical inspector gloomily concluded that the returns were “so unreliable as to be valueless for any purpose … Clinical assessment … has so many intrinsic flaws that with the friction of common use it flies to pieces.”[64] The larger case pushed forward by the likes of the Committee against Malnutrition, McCarrison, Orr, and the League of Nations was that the broader biochemical definition of malnutrition meant that the category of the “normal” should no longer be equated to “average” conditions or “minimum requirements”; it should now denote an “optimum” level of nutrition.[65]

It is worth reemphasizing how quickly the debate about the ethics of feeding hungry children became technologized around the discussion of its nutritional mechanisms. Yet the technologizing of hunger did not necessarily defuse its ethico-political charge. Indeed, by the 1930s, it was nutritional experts advocating the broader biochemical definition of malnutrition who had rendered redundant the original premise that school meals were intended only for “those unable by reason of lack of food to take advantage of the education provided them.” In their hands, the school meal was rather a way of addressing the much larger question of poverty and malnutrition. And yet, many on the left who had once championed medical inspection had come to believe that without clearer standards and more consistent techniques for identifying malnutrition, it now served as a ruse to limit the provision of meals to a measly 2 to 3 percent of schoolchildren in haphazard and unjust ways. Only a simple means test—or universal provision to all children—could ensure equity of treatment across localities, as well as the active prevention of malnutrition (rather than the remedial feeding of those identified post facto as malnourished at a medical inspection).[66] The exigencies of war and the need to supplement the rations of vulnerable groups by way of school and factory canteens helped these arguments to gain ground.[67] In a quest to expand the school meals service to an optimistic 75 percent of schoolchildren, the minister of food, Lord Woolton, abandoned medical inspection in 1941, confidently declaring, “I want to see elementary school children as well fed as children going to Eton and Harrow.”[68] By 1944, the Education Act obliged all local authorities to provide a school meals service, although it retained the means test to distinguish between those who were to have a free lunch and the rest who would have to pay half of its cost. It was not until 1968, when the means test was removed for children with three or more siblings under the age of nineteen, that Woolton’s target came close to being achieved, with 70.1 percent of schoolchildren being fed at school and 12 percent having their meals for free.[69]

There was, however, no such thing as a free lunch. The school meal had always been conceived as a form of what the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration called “social education” as much as a form of welfare. If society was now to provide hungry children with school meals, those meals had to teach them about the nature of that society and the appropriate socially responsible forms of behavior it now demanded. Even F. Le Gros Clark, writing in 1948, having helped secure a central place for the school meal in both the British welfare state and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Association, insisted that it should “initiate children into a social life that will … be far more rich and complex than any we knew in the past.” By making them “tolerant, self-reliant and easy mannered,” it had “become in every sense part of the educational system of the country.”[70] Whatever the politics of its advocates, from its Edwardian inception through to its commanding height within the postwar welfare state, there was a remarkably similar vision of the role of the school meal in assembling society. Broadly speaking, it was hoped that by enshrining a new model of society based on the principles of community, solidarity, civility, and efficiency, school meals would help produce healthy, productive, and socially well-adapted citizens. If there was a difference in the way the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration and Le Gros Clark viewed the school meal as a project of social education, it was one of degree, not kind. By 1944, the school meal’s lessons in the civility and solidarities of society were no longer seen as the preserve of the undernourished few, as they had been before the Great War, or even of the malnourished many, as between the wars, but ideally of all children.

These lessons were all the more powerful because they were engineered into the very fabric of school life: into the design of kitchens, canteens, and dining halls, the arrangement of tables, chairs, and utensils, and the order and discipline of the meal—not to mention the food itself. Assembling an appropriate material infrastructure for the performance of an efficient and civil community demanded the technical expertise of not just nutritionists and domestic scientists, but also architects, engineers, and industrial designers. The techno-politics of the school meal rapidly escalated as different forms of expertise were needed to materially improve its delivery and universal reach. I will have much to say about the patchiness and diversity of provision that continued to plague the school meal up to the 1950s, for this seriously compromised the new vision of society and forms of governmentality it sought to instantiate. The details are important here, for it was literally at this microscopic level that society was assembled and its designs for life were complicated and refused.

Let me first dwell on this question of the production of civility. It was repeatedly suggested that the school meal should have “a civilising effect upon the children.”[71] Enshrining “moral and spiritual as well as mental and physical values,” it would train “children in habits of self-control and thoughtfulness for one another.”[72] As civility was a habit that required daily liturgical practice, school meals were to provide “practical lessons in unselfishness, cleanliness and self-help,” encouraging the acquisition of “gentle manners, courtesy, and respect” in ways that fostered social “harmony and happiness.” If schoolchildren rarely sat down to meals at home—much less meals with tablecloths, cutlery, and the art of polite conversation—they would learn the intimate arts of civility through the school meal, “by washing hands and faces, singing or saying grace together, sitting at table with others and talking to them quietly, learning to handle knife and fork or spoon, and to eat in seemly fashion.” These arts would then spread from the feeding center to “the school, the home, even to the street” and pass “from generation to generation.”[73] Put another way: “Education as social beings requires cleanly and neat service of the meal and its consumption in an atmosphere of leisure and friendly care for the needs and interests of others.”[74]

Teaching these arts of civility was often seen to depend on a suitable regime of supervision and emulation. The initial model of a single supervisor imposing discipline by way of bells, rules of silence, or shouted commands was soon criticized as leaving “no scope for humanizing and educational influences.”[75] Although in 1914 more than half of the 137 local authorities providing school meals had drafted regulations to secure “habits of orderliness and decorous behaviour,” they were given further guidance by a Board of Education worried that the intended wartime expansion of the service would bring chaos.[76] While a certain amount of discipline was necessary (and it was hoped that teachers would volunteer to provide it, given that the 1906 Act did not contractually oblige them to do so), less disciplinary and more productive forms of regulation were generally favored. Although adults—if not teachers, then members of the care or canteen committee—were to supervise proceedings, few were needed (one per fifty children), because responsibility was to be ceded to elder children who could act as “monitors” to between twelve and twenty of their peers. Monitors would lay and clear tables, serve food, and act as exemplary students whose manners could be emulated while they monitored the behavior of their charges.[77] They would serve as good examples of the way in which manners and civility were less to be imposed upon children than presented as a set of social conventions that should be internalized as a mentality of self-government.[78] Despite the enormous quantities of working-class memoirs and testimonies published and recorded since the 1960s, we have little evidence of how children responded to these new disciplines and responsibilities, although some of us may remember how quickly the fragile balance of restraint and misrule could disintegrate into a food fight.[79] It is, however, clear that not all took the “wholesome” civilizing influence of the school meal to heart. The London County Council’s regulations show that those who refused to learn the arts of civility were referred to a variety of higher authorities, such as the head teacher or, worse still, the care or canteen committee, who could punish the children by not allowing them to eat from society’s high table.[80] Between the wars, the Board of Education increasingly sought to enlist the help of teachers, for they were considered more capable of acting in exemplary ways and maintaining order through the calculated administration of shame than student monitors or the poorly paid women who invariably made up the canteen staff.[81] The ideal was for teachers to sit at the heads of small tables with a dozen students, where they could demonstrate how to behave and could discipline those who failed to learn. (See Figure 3.) If this model was enforced when the 1944 Education Act compelled teachers to supervise meals that were now seen as integral to the corporate life of schools,[82] its achievement was often hampered by the lack of requisite materials (such as dining halls and suitable chairs and tables), as well as by shortages of teachers.[83]

Figure 3: Engineering a civil environment I: Greenwich primary school canteen, 1953. From Nan Berger, The School Meals Service (Plymouth, 1990), 99.

The material environment in which meals were served was also thought critical to the production of civil and sociable subjects. This was partly about creating a sanitary and congenial space for school meals, but it was also about providing the physical tools of civility—tables, chairs, plates, cups, knives, forks, and spoons, even tablecloths and flowers—which were often absent from the poorest homes, where food went from hand to mouth. Materials mattered. It was a source of great consternation that, as provision initially relied on existing local philanthropic services, children invariably ate in a number of inappropriate and degrading settings, including church vestries, public restaurants, school playgrounds, classrooms, cloakrooms, and cellars, or, worse still, on street corners or at home.[84] (See Figure 4.) Even the purpose-built feeding center, once heralded as a model of efficiency and civility, was quickly denigrated and associated with the workhouse.[85] (See Figure 5.) Increasingly, it was hoped that all schools would boast their own dinner halls or canteens, which would be “bright, warm and cheerful; tables decorated with vases of flowers, should seat no more than twelve, and be covered with lino or cloth. There should be chairs instead of forms … Tables can be laid every day with knives, forks, and spoons and tumblers of water.”[86] Yet making this environment materialize was a difficult, slow, and expensive process. By 1936, only 73 out of 311 local education authorities (LEAs) in England and Wales had schools with a canteen, and they served fewer than 30,000 children in a meager 479 schools.[87] The Board of Education was suitably alarmed to appoint the domestic scientist Edna Langley as inspector of provision of meals arrangements in 1938. Her first report dismally concluded that a lack of materials and of sound organization meant that only “in a few areas can the dining service be regarded as having definite educational value.”[88] Even in Willesden, which boasted “one of the best school-feeding schemes in the country,” long trestle tables and benches were still used, with knives and forks used only once a week, when a joint of meat was served.[89] The brave new world of engineered civility within the school dining hall was being only falteringly delivered.

Figure 4: Waiting to be fed on a street corner, ca. 1900. Reproduced by permission of the Salvation Army International Heritage Centre.

Figure 5: Engineering a civil environment II: full trestles and forms, Bristol, ca. 1910. From L. S. Bryant, School Feeding (London, 1913), 46.

The expansion of the school meals service during World War II proved a catalyst in the development of appropriate infrastructures, as the costs were picked up by the Board of Education, not, as before 1939, by local authorities. By 1943, the Ministry of Works and the Board of Education had collaborated to design and produce a complete new range of canteen equipment as well as freestanding prefabricated designs for both central kitchens and school canteens.[90] These enshrined the long-cherished goals of the canteen movement: the scientific management of the kitchen area on view to the students, who sat behind a cafeteria service counter, around tables of eight or ten in the well-equipped dining hall. (See Figure 6.) Within six months of their launch, two to three thousand of these buildings were being produced every month, forcing harassed officials at the Board of Education to find ways to expedite the planning permission process.[91] On the heels of this success, the Education Act of 1944 promised that every school would have its own dining hall, a commitment reiterated in the revised School Building Regulations the following year, as the new Ministry of Education began to plan a hugely ambitious building program, the cost of which rose from £24 million in 1947 to £55 million in 1949 to a projected £94 million in 1952.[92] While the Ministry of Works Building Research Station had initially supervised the design and construction of these new schools and their canteens, the pace of work and the need for “closer integration of administration and [architectural] technique” was so great that the Ministry of Education formed its own Architects and Building Branch to oversee the construction program and establish detailed regulations for the levels of light, heat, and air flow in canteens.[93] By the early 1950s, when many of the new model canteens were found to be operating inefficiently below their capacity, the long-cherished dream of a single-purpose dining room in each school was abandoned, and LEAs were encouraged to reduce the unit costs of the building program by adopting “dual-use” dining rooms that doubled as corridors, entrance halls, or classrooms.[94] A survey in 1956 showed that only 48 percent of schoolchildren ate school meals, a low rate that was partially explained by the less than ideal conditions in which many were served.[95]

Figure 6: A model kitchen and canteen, 1943. Reproduced by permission of the British Library, B.S.10/156.

The design and construction of school canteens was only one part of the project to engineer a civil social environment for the school meal. Kitchens and dining rooms also had to be equipped with appropriate hardware. Tables and chairs had to be varied and of appropriate sizes for children of different ages to be able to maintain the right posture and have enough elbowroom to make appropriate use of their cutlery. And everything had to be made from hygienic and durable materials—enamel plates, mugs, and cutlery (later earthenware and stainless steel), solid wood floors, chairs, and tables (later with linoleum covers).[96] Similarly, kitchens were tiled, plumbed for plentiful running water and suitable drainage, equipped with modern gas cookers, and organized in accordance with the principles of scientific management, with time-saving appliances such as steam cookers, mechanical peelers, and even dishwashers.[97] Again, in 1939, alarmed at the variety of local practice, the Ministry of Works assumed responsibility for the supply of all equipment and furniture to local authorities, producing elaborate catalogs of materials (listing their functions, diameters, and prices) that were incorporated into the prefabricated designs of kitchens and canteens.[98] Yet it was soon apparent that, just like children and teachers, materials and equipment resisted orchestration into a model social environment. The much-vaunted insulated containers within which food was to be transported and served, which had been proudly displayed at the exhibition and launch of the new kitchens in 1943, proved particularly troublesome. When full, they were prone to spills and leaks, not only wasting hot food but potentially injuring kitchen staff; and when empty, they suffered from condensation and rust.[99] Buildings also creaked and groaned. Poorly insulated kitchen and canteen buildings were cold and suffered from appalling condensation. Norwich’s city architect repeatedly tried to solve this problem. First he tried to insulate the building’s ceiling, but the plaster became so wet it fell off, and cement proved only marginally more effective. He then sought to stem the flow of steam by placing separating doors between the kitchen and the canteen, but this only transferred the problem (and the cold) to the kitchen, where he then installed extractor fans. Eventually, with the addition of metal covers to the sinks, conditions became “satisfactory.”[100] It was hoped that such problems would become a thing of the past when, in 1953, the Ministry of Education established an “Advisory Sub-committee for Furniture and Equipment for School Meals” to work in conjunction with the British Standards Institution technical committees on school furniture and canteen equipment.[101] Newly designed equipment that made the most of modern materials was now to be purchased directly by LEAs (not the Ministry of Works) in the hope of reducing distance between users, manufacturers, designers, and scientific experts. This renewed effort at the engineering of civility reminds us how many agents and forms of expertise had been enlisted to make good the always compromised endeavor to create an appropriate environment for the school meal.

Next to civility came health for the new socially adapted citizen; appetites, as well as minds and manners, had to be trained. The aim of the school meal was not simply to improve children’s nutritional health, but to teach them what “a dinner ought to be” so that they would become “better fathers and mothers in consequence.”[102] “It is to be hoped,” wrote the head of London’s meals service in 1947, “that the provision of well-cooked and well-served meals, properly balanced, will lead to the formation of wise feeding habits in the children as they grow up.”[103] As social and nutritional investigators constantly bemoaned the dietary conservatism and ignorance of the poor, here was an opportunity to introduce children to new foods and good dietary habits. In Bradford they quickly learned that “children were quite unused to normal food, having subsisted largely on canned and fried food, coffee and baker’s bread,” but that with a “little encouragement, by starting with small helpings, by not at first unduly pressing what is distasteful and in other ways, children whom at first it is difficult to get to eat can soon be made to do so.”[104] Commissioned to investigate how to get schoolchildren to eat their vegetables, Le Gros Clark argued that the school canteen offered an ideal forum for “training in food values” that should “go far in eradicating the settled food dislikes of most children.” For instance, children could even be taught to like the dreaded swede, a root vegetable rich in ascorbic acid, if it was introduced slowly, mashed with potatoes.[105] It was hoped that these new tastes and appetites would eventually transform domestic dietaries as well. In Bradford it was considered “a waste of time and money” if those well fed at school returned home “to irregular, hastily prepared, unsuitable meals,” so every mother received a free book of recipes designed by the school medical officer and the superintendent of domestic subjects.[106]

Despite some promising early signs, there is little evidence that children learned to enjoy or even tolerate nutritional foods.[107] More often, like Ernie Benson, who was put off brown bread for life at his free breakfasts before the Great War, children struggled to adapt to new tastes and foods.[108] Even Le Gros Clark found that the hatred of green leafy vegetables was stronger among older children who had been exposed to them longer![109] It was not just the improving nutritional foods that were unpopular; school meals in general appear to have acquired their dreadful reputation early on. Working-class memoirs and testimonies are replete with stories of stale or soggy bread, gruel-like stews “in which floated bits of fat or grisly meat,” “little bags of mystery” masquerading as sausages, lots of mashed potato, and, of course, steamed puddings and watery custard.[110] Bradford’s pioneers were merely the first in what became a long line of those involved in the campaign for or provision of school meals to be perplexed that hungry children would often turn down the chance to eat at school: “it being no unusual thing to see a child refusing some dish with a most appetising smell to an ordinary person … at the same time showing it was really hungry by eating several pieces of dry bread.”[111] One key, perhaps, is that telling phrase “an ordinary person.” Clearly, especially before the expansion of the service in the 1940s, those in charge of school meals lived at a considerable social distance from those who ate them. The meals they provided—a relentless cycle of soups, stews, or meat scraps and two overcooked vegetables, followed by a generally stodgy pudding—bore a stronger resemblance to the typical diet of the lower middle class than to that of the laboring poor, for whom bread remained the staple of every meal, and meat appeared only on weekends. The head of one of Bradford’s elementary schools recalled how in 1921 a parent had told her, “Kathleen does not have dinners ‘like these.’ She has bread and jam and treacle. She says she will not eat any dinner today.”[112]

Quite apart from the alien tastes and textures of unfamiliar foods, it is clear that for many, a shameful stigma of charitable soup kitchens, or worse still the institutional reek of the workhouse, lingered around school meals much like the distinctive smell of disinfectant and boiled cabbage they made so memorable.[113] Although those in receipt of school meals were not disqualified from voting (as they had been with the receipt of poor relief before 1918) or penalized by a reduction in poor relief or unemployment benefits, the medical inspection and the means test (which remained in place until 1968) continued to be a hateful marker of social difference.[114] Despite the introduction of universal provision in 1944, school food continued to be experienced more as a form of social punishment than as an entitlement. This was, of course, to confirm what Audrey Richards’s pioneering social anthropology of food had demonstrated in East Africa during the 1920s: the social meanings and cultural practices surrounding food were just as significant as their biochemical function.[115] Indeed, from the 1930s, social nutritionists such as Le Gros Clark came to recognize that they could no longer dismiss the social meanings of food as irrational superstitions awaiting disenchantment by nutritional science; they had to work with, not against, the grain of customary dietary practices.[116]

Regardless of the complex associations evoked by school meals, many were simply dreadful, as well as devoid of much nutritional value. Even Arthur McNalty, George Newman’s successor as chief medical officer at the Board of Education, bemoaned the “monotony of hash, stew and soup, which in addition to being monotonous are often deficient even in calorie value, and deficient in just those elements of a well-balanced diet which a necessitous child does not get at home, such as milk, cheese, eggs, green vegetables, fruit and meat.”[117] Although the Board of Education had handed out advice on nutrition and sample menus for some time,[118] it had never done so with reference to the Advisory Committee on Nutrition; nor had there been any systematic practice of school medical officers’ approving or inspecting dietaries used in schools.[119] It was not until 1941 that standards for the nutritional content of school meals were finally established, although it is unlikely that much notice was taken of them until the 1944 Education Act created the new post of school meals organizer for the new cadre of properly trained domestic scientists with a knowledge of nutrition and the scientific management of kitchens.[120] Long schedules and staffing scales were drawn up for the veritable army of workers and helpers they were now to organize and train in the skills of scientific catering.[121] These new experts of the school canteen were soon bombarded with publications offering guides to best practice in nutritional planning, sample menus, canteen management, and kitchen organization and design, as well as advice on hygiene, presentation, and service.[122] If nutritional expertise was finally brought to bear on the preparation of school meals, it did not, of course, make them any more edible or attractive. A recent survey, tellingly titled “Why Did They Make Me Eat That?,” found that 53 percent of respondents had been forced to eat school dinners they detested, and 51 percent believed that their dislike of particular school foods—tapioca and cabbage were especially reviled—continued to shape their eating habits. Unpleasant “memories of fatty roasts, spam fritters, over boiled peas and tapioca puddings (otherwise known as ‘frogspawn’)” abound, offset only by the cherished moments when “dinner ladies” were outwitted by the well-practiced strategies of hiding and disposing of unwanted foods between plates, in pockets, on floors, or by trading with others.[123]

Routine medical inspections of schoolchildren in the decades following World War II highlighted “a substantial improvement in the average standard of child health.”[124] The Ministry of Education abandoned its attempts to measure the nutritional health of schoolchildren in 1947, so we have no way of telling the extent to which school meals were responsible for this improvement as opposed to other welfare programs or the general rise in wages and living standards in the postwar period. In any case, perhaps this is not the only question we should be asking, or indeed the best way to assess the success or failure of the school meal. Instead of measuring the efficacy of the British welfare state through a social-historical calculus of the success or failure of school meals in improving nutritional health, I have tried to use the history of the school meal to track the changing ethics of hunger and the history of the social it illuminates.

I am not suggesting that the history of the social I have offered through the particular case of the school meal is generalizable, for we are beginning to recognize that the formation of the social as a domain of government took a variety of forms as it addressed problems as diverse as public health, town planning, leisure, and morale.[125] The history of the social that I have traced comes into focus when, after Malthus, hunger became widely, if not universally, understood as a natural tool of liberal political economy that compelled individuals to labor and dramatized the moral failure of those who had failed to learn the disciplines of the market. Increasingly, from the early nineteenth century, the hungry, characterized as lacking the appropriate moral qualities of liberal selfhood, were objectified as a social problem that required disciplinary attention. The social here was a field of targeted intervention directed toward specific groups who had failed to become self-governing liberal subjects. However, from the 1840s, this view of hunger and the social was gradually called into question by the recognition that, far from having failed to learn the moral discipline of the market, the hungry were victims of a liberal political economy that was either failing or yet to be fully realized. From this perspective, hunger no longer threatened just the hungry; it was also a threat to the health, wealth, and stability of all of society in ways that demanded a new ethic of collective social responsibility and action. Although the consequences of hunger were considered to have a universal social reach by the late nineteenth century, the attempts to redress it, as with other pressing social questions, were still targeted at specific groups. Unsurprisingly, given that nowhere was the moral innocence of the hungry, or the dangerous social costs of hunger, more evident than among children, one of the first manifestations of this new social ethic was the school meal.

Although the school meal was a product of this broader ethical shift, it also crucially assembled a model of the good society that it claimed to govern hunger on behalf of, even though it long remained associated with a less benign view of the hungry as a social problem. If the school meal acknowledged children’s new social right not to be hungry, it did so in return for educating them in a new set of social responsibilities and obligations: of eating the correct foods in the right way and becoming healthy and civil citizens. However, as the school meals service was extended, the principles of social responsibility it sought to instantiate—most notably the solidarities of community, the importance of sociability and civility, and the necessity of dietary health and efficiency—were no longer seen as the preserve of the hungry, but were deemed necessary for all children and were universally applied in the terms of the 1944 Act. School meals were now to encourage particular mentalities of self-government, the internalization of the lessons of a healthy diet, and the civility of society. Carolyn Steedman has written eloquently of how the “calculated, dictated fairness” of universal provision helped heal some of the hidden injuries and social exclusions of class, teaching her “in a covert way, that I had a right to exist, was worth something.”[126] The social problem of hunger had been transformed into the nutritional problem of society: the social was no longer a field of targeted intervention directed toward specific groups; it was now a domain that embraced everyone.

It will not have gone unnoticed that in tracing the assembly of society through the school meal, I have laid more emphasis on the agency of what I have termed “techno-politics” than on the formal politics of the labor movement normally associated with the development of the welfare state. In doing so, I do not want to deny the role of political movements that spoke in the name of the social or agitated for the provision of school meals at the local or national level (although, as we have seen, that was the case across the political spectrum). Instead, I want to emphasize that the practical possibility of implementing a school meals program owed much to a seemingly apolitical set of technical knowledges and forms of expertise. Just as the work of social and nutritional scientists first allowed the social costs of hunger to be calculated in terms of its detrimental effects on racial health and productivity, so the delivery of school meals came to depend on their techniques for identifying hungry children by way of the means test or medical inspection. Yet in redefining hunger as malnutrition between the wars, nutritional scientists transformed the conditions of possibility for the school meal. It was no longer limited to those whose education was impeded by hunger, but could be extended, either to the many more who suffered from malnutrition or to all, so as to achieve optimum levels of nutritional health in the interests of social efficiency. The development and extension of the school meals service in turn depended on different sets of technical expertise—those of educationalists, architects, domestic scientists, and industrial designers—that promised to be able to deliver an appropriate moral and material environment in which the new principles of the good society could be instantiated. In the pursuit of these objectives, the resolution of one problem always gave way to another—whether of identifying hungry children, or knowing what to feed them where and how—demanding fresh perspectives and forms of expertise. These new technicians of social life played ever more significant roles in the construction of the welfare state; indeed, in many ways, they made possible both new forms of statecraft and new conceptions of the social. In the seemingly mundane details of the school meal’s techno-politics, we might then see a different view of welfare states. It is not one that begins with the rise of the labor movement and ends with the ideological principles and centralized structures that ultimately came to characterize it; it attends, rather, to the varied ways in which it was instantiated through the diverse networks of power and expertise that addressed different social problems. It is for this reason that I have suggested that the school meal could be seen less as an effect of social democracy and its welfare state than as partly constitutive of them. It was not that there was, as ever in Britain, any grand plan for assembling society and its associated forms of statecraft in this way through the school meal; there was no great theory or program. Instead, it developed slowly, by trial and a good deal of error, always heavily compromised by shortages of investment and recalcitrant children and materials. I hope that by recovering the messy historical formation of social forms of governing such as the school meal, we might better understand their current malaise and possible futures. Given the history of the social I have sketched here, it may be necessary to complicate the now fashionable view that the postwar consolidation of the welfare state in Britain was “the last and most glorious flowering of late Victorian philanthropy.”[127] Such a view certainly does not do justice to the new universal embrace of the social that is evident in the expansion of school meals from the 1940s, or the range of actors involved in its techno-political instantiation. Yet, as we have seen, for many, the social work of the school meal did not lose its pejorative connotations. The sense of entitlement that the school meal was supposed to reflect was often offset by its prescription of new social responsibilities, a difficult balance that highlighted the continuing dialectic between liberal and social forms of governmentality. Acknowledging the partial and deeply compromised nature of the society assembled by school meals—the stigma of poverty that many associated with its bad food, inadequate infrastructure, and ways of qualifying for a free lunch—may help to explain its vulnerability to the neoliberal critiques of Thatcherism.[128]

My thanks to all who participated in the following events: the Chauncey D. Leake Workshop on “Food, Expertise and the Science of Government,” University of California, Berkeley, May 9, 2003; the 72nd Anglo-American Conference of Historians on “The Body,” Institute of Historical Research, University of London, July 2–4, 2003; and the North American Conference on British Studies, Portland, Oregon, October 24–26, 2003. At Berkeley I learned a lot from discussions in two graduate classes and with my colleagues in the Townsend Humanities Center’s Initiative Group for Associate Professors. My special thanks to David Hollinger, Penelope Ismay, Patrick Joyce, Thomas Laqueur, Jonathan Lawrence, Christopher Otter, Sonya Rose, Yuri Slezkine, and Daniel Ussishkin, as well as this journal’s anonymous readers.

James Vernon is Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Director of its Center for British Studies. He is the author of Politics and the People (1993) and editor of Re-reading the Constitution (1996). This piece is part of a larger book project that will shortly be published by Harvard University Press as Modernity’s Hunger: How Imperial Britain Created and Failed to Solve the Problem of Hunger in the Modern World.


1 In the 1870s, local philanthropic school meals services began to emerge in Germany, France, and Britain, quickly spreading across Europe to America by 1914. Holland, Switzerland, and Britain were the first to make national provision for school meals, in 1900, 1903, and 1906, respectively. L. S. Bryant, School Feeding: Its History and Practice at Home and Abroad (London, 1913). There are as yet no histories of the role of school meals in development programs. For an early indication of their centrality, see United Nations (FAO) Nutritional Studies, School Feeding: Its Contribution to Child Nutrition (Rome, 1953). In Britain, Margaret Thatcher first rose to prominence as the “milk snatcher” when she cut free milk in schools in 1971. A year after her election as prime minister, the 1980 Education Act removed the obligation for local authorities to provide school meals to children who were not entitled to free meals, while the 1986 Social Security Act limited the entitlement to free meals to those on income support.

2 Notable exceptions include Jacques Donzelot, The Policing of Families (New York, 1979); Denise Riley, “Am I That Name?” (Basingstoke, 1988); George Steinmetz, Regulating the Social: The Welfare State and Local Politics in Imperial Germany (Princeton, N.J., 1993); Mary Poovey, Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation (Chicago, 1995); Janet R. Horne, A Social Laboratory for Modern France: The Musée Social and the Rise of the Welfare State (Durham, N.C., 2002); and Patrick Joyce, ed., The Social in Question: New Bearings in History and the Social Sciences (London, 2002).

3 See F. Le Gros Clark, Social History of the School Meals Service (London, 1948); John Hurt, “Feeding the Hungry Schoolchild in the First Half of the Twentieth Century,” in D. J. Oddy and D. S. Miller, eds., Diet and Health in Modern Britain (London, 1985); John Burnett, “The Rise and Decline of School Meals in Britain, 1860–1990,” in J. Burnett and D. Oddy, eds., The Origins and Development of Food Policies in Europe (Leicester, 1994); Bernard Harris, The Health of the Schoolchild: A History of the School Medical Service in England and Wales (Buckingham, 1995); Charles Webster, “Government Policy on School Meals and Welfare Foods, 1939–1970,” in D. F. Smith, ed., Nutrition in Britain: Science, Scientists and Politics in the Twentieth Century (London, 1997); and John Stewart, “‘This Injurious Measure’: Scotland and the 1906 Education (Provision of Meals) Act,” Scottish Historical Review 78, no. 205 (April 1999): 76–94. I have not been able to find a corresponding literature on school meals for any other country.

4 This is by no means confined to historians of the school meal; it remains a feature of even those accounts that address the politics of hunger. Hunger is always seen as a natural, material condition that generates disputes about the distribution of entitlement to food. See, for prominent examples, Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford, 1981); L. F. Newman, ed., Hunger in History: Food Shortage, Poverty and Deprivation (Oxford, 1990); and Belinda J. Davis, Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2000).

5 For other “culturalist” histories of hunger, see Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (Berkeley, Calif., 1992); Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley, Calif., 1993); Maud Ellmann, The Hunger Artists: Starving, Writing, and Imprisonment (Cambridge, Mass., 1993); and Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton, N.J., 1995).

6 Michel Foucault, “On Governmentality,” Ideology and Consciousness 6 (Autumn 1979): 5–22; Mitchell Dean, Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society (London, 1999); Nikolas Rose, Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought (Cambridge, 1999).

7 An argument well articulated in Chris Otter, “Making Liberalism Durable: Vision and Civility in the Late Victorian City,” Social History 27, no. 1 (2002): 1–15; Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley, Calif., 2003).

8 David Scott, “Colonial Governmentality,” Social Text 43 (1995): 191–220; Gyan Prakash, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India (Princeton, N.J., 1999); Patrick Joyce, The Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the Modern City (London, 2003).

9 Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, Mass., 1993).

10 Piero Camporesi, Bread of Dreams: Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Europe (Chicago, 1989) and The Land of Hunger (Cambridge, 1996).

11 John Walter, “The Social Economy of Dearth in Early Modern England,” in J. Walter and R. Schofield, eds., Famine, Disease, and the Social Order in Early Modern Society (Cambridge, 1989).

12 E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century” and “The Moral Economy Revisited,” in Thompson, Customs in Common (New York, 1991). See also Adrian Randall and Andrew Charlesworth, eds., Moral Economy and Popular Protest: Crowds, Conflict and Authority (Basingstoke, 2000).

13 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, 1957 [1944]).

14 Joseph Townsend, A Dissertation on the Poor Laws by a Well-Wisher to Mankind (Berkeley, Calif., 1971 [1786]), 27.

15 Gareth Stedman Jones, An End to Poverty? A Historical Debate (London, 2004); Boyd Hilton, The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1785–1865 (Cambridge, 1986); Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (London, 1984); Mitchell Dean, The Constitution of Poverty (London, 1991). My argument here concerns an ethical reorientation of hunger, not the varied and hybrid forms of poor relief or charitable action. On the latter, see Lynn Hollen Lees, The Solidarities of Strangers: The English Poor Laws and the People, 1700–1948 (Cambridge, 1998).

16 Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (New York, 2001); Sir Charles Trevelyan, The Irish Crisis (London, 1848), 320. Trevelyan, brother-in-law to Thomas Macaulay, was knighted for his work at the treasury administering relief to Ireland during the famine.

17 Valerie Johnston, Diets in Workhouses and Prisons (London, 1985); T. C. Barker, D. J. Oddy, and John Yudkin, The Dietary Surveys of Dr Edward Smith, 1862–3 (London, 1971). Dietary experiments on the army and factory workers had a rather later history, concerned as they were with maximizing production rather than the minimal levels of subsistence. See Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (Berkeley, Calif., 1992).

18 Christopher Hamlin, “Could You Starve to Death in England in 1839? The Chadwick-Farr Controversy and the Loss of the ‘Social’ in Public Health,” American Journal of Public Health 85, no. 6 (1995): 856–66.

19 Ian Astruther, The Scandal of Andover Workhouse (London, 1973); Parliamentary Papers, 1846 (663-1), Report from the Select Committee on Andover Union.

20 Hilton, The Age of Atonement, 108–14.

21 For the genealogy of this humanitarian narrative, see Thomas Laqueur, “Bodies, Details, and the Humanitarian Narrative,” in Lynn Hunt, ed., The New Cultural History (Berkeley, Calif., 1989).

22 Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist was first published in 1837. Peter Keating, ed., Into Unknown England, 1866–1913: Selections from the Social Explorers (London, 1976); J. Marriot and M. Matsumura, eds., The Metropolitan Poor: Semifictional Accounts, 1795–1910, 6 vols. (London, 1999); Margaret Kelleher, The Feminization of Famine (Durham, N.C., 1997).

23 At the height of the Cotton Famine in 1862—a famine caused by the blockade of cotton supplies during the American Civil War—a quarter of the county’s population was receiving relief. On the valorization of the industrious but unemployed working man, see M. E. Rose, “Rochdale Man and the Stalybridge Riot: Poor Relief during the Lancashire Cotton Famine, 1861–1865,” in A. P. Donajgrodzki, ed., Social Control in Nineteenth Century Britain (London, 1977). For later accounts evoking sympathy for unemployed men, see A. S. Krausse, Starving London: The Story of a Three Weeks’ Sojourn among the Destitute (1886), and Bart Kennedy, The Hunger Line (London, 1908).

24 Lawrence Goldman, Science, Reform, and Politics in Victorian Britain: The Social Science Association, 1857–1886 (Cambridge, 2002).

25 Patricia Hollis, Ladies Elect: Women in English Local Government, 1865–1914 (Oxford, 1987); Carolyn Steedman, Childhood, Culture and Class in Britain: Margaret McMillan, 1860–1931 (London, 1990).

26 The campaign for, and provision of, school meals was highly gendered from the outset, confirming Denise Riley’s contention that by the late nineteenth century the social was frequently identified as a women’s domain. Riley, “Am I That Name?”

27 Karen Hunt, Equivocal Feminists: The Social Democratic Federation and the Woman Question, 1884–1911 (Cambridge, 1996).

28 In fact, the ILP campaign for school meals in Bradford was an extension of the philanthropic activities of Bradford’s Cinderella Club, established in response to the calls of Robert Blatchford’s Clarion for a Cinderella movement to provide welfare for children. By January 1903 they were providing 1,000 free meals a day, half of the need they had identified. Keith Laybourn, “The Issue of School Feeding in Bradford, 1904–1907,” Journal of Educational Administration and History 14, no. 2 (July 1982): 30–38.

29 Parliamentary Papers, 1904 (Cd.2175), xxxii, Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration, vol. 1: Report and Appendix; Parliamentary Papers, 1906 (143), ii, 199, A Bill to Provide Secular Education and Periodical Medical Examination and Food for Children Attending State-Supported Schools.

30 John Stewart, “Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour Party and Child Welfare, 1900–1914,” Twentieth Century British History 4, no. 2 (1993): 105–25; Stewart, “‘This Injurious Measure.'”

31 The now-classic account is Rabinbach’s The Human Motor; also H. Kamminga and A. Cunningham, eds., The Science and Culture of Nutrition, 1840–1940 (Amsterdam, 1985).

32 Lyon Playfair, the distinguished chemist and student of Justus Liebig, advised the Poor Law Board in 1850, while Dr. Edward Smith, a medic with a keen interest in diet, was appointed its medical inspector in 1865. Johnston, Diets in Workhouses and Prisons, chap. 1.

33 The Society of Public Analysts was founded in 1874 largely to develop standards and laboratory procedures to test the purity of foods. Chris Otter, “The Government of the Eye: Light Technology, Liberalism and the Victorian City, 1840–1900” (Ph.D. diss., University of Manchester, 2002), 112–14; M. French and J. Phillips, Cheated Not Poisoned? Food Regulation in the United Kingdom, 1875–1938 (Manchester, 2000).

34 J. A. Hobson, The Social Problem: Life and Work (London, 1901), 265, 267, 266.

35 An ill-fed and enervated population threatened social stability and the future of the race: “no civilisation,” he warned, “can be sound or stable which has at its base this mass of stunted human life.” No wonder, having concluded that a fourth of the population was living in poverty, Rowntree believed that he had identified “a social question of profound importance await[ing] solution.” B. S. Rowntree, Poverty: A Study of Town Life (London, 1901), 304. These sentiments are echoed, less carefully and scientifically, in Arnold White, Efficiency and Empire (Brighton, 1973 [1901]), 105, and Richard Higgs, The Heart of the Social Problem: Twelve Millions Starving—How Can They Be Fed? (London, 1913).

36 These conditions were famously exposed during the Boer War, when “40 to 60 per cent of the men who present[ed] themselves for enlistment [were] found to be physically unfit for military service.” Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration, 1: v.

37 Ibid., 39.

38 The history of social investigation is often conceived in terms of the development and perfection of these techniques to make society legible and amenable to government. For recent examples, see David Englander and Rosemary O’Day, eds., Retrieved Riches: Social Investigation in Britain, 1840–1914 (Aldershot, 1995), and Martin Bulmer, Kevin Bales, and Kathryn Kish Sklar, eds., The Social Survey in Historical Perspective, 1880–1940 (Cambridge, 1995).

39 For references to nutritional research, see the evidence of Drs. Archibald K. Chalmers, W. L. Mackenzie, James Niven, and Alfred Eicholtz, as well as Rowntree and Loch, in Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration, vol. 2: Minutes of Evidence Taken before the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration. Hutchison’s Food and the Principles of Dietetics was the standard work on nutrition in Britain. First published in 1900, it was reprinted three times in 1901, and again in 1902 and 1904. The second edition of 1905 was reprinted in 1906, 1909, and 1910; the third edition of 1911 was reprinted in 1913 and 1914; the fourth edition of 1916 was reprinted in 1918 and 1919; the fifth edition of 1922 was reprinted in 1923; the sixth edition of 1926 was reprinted in 1928 and 1931; and V. H. Mottram rewrote the first three chapters for the seventh edition of 1933. Robert Hutchison and V. H. Mottram, Food and the Principles of Dietetics (London, 1933).

40 Questioning Rowntree on these issues, the chair of the committee complained that they had heard so many “very different opinions expressed” that he was left “plunged into a morass of doubt.” Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration, 2: 111, 202.

41 David Smith, “Nutrition in Britain in the Twentieth Century” (Ph.D. diss., University of Edinburgh, 1986). On the “Glasgow School,” see D. Smith and M. Nicholson, “The ‘Glasgow School’ of Paton, Findlay and Cathcart: Conservative Thought in Chemical Physiology, Nutrition and Public Health,” Social Studies of Science 19 (1989): 195–238.

42 E. V. McCollum, The Newer Knowledge of Nutrition: The Use of Food for the Preservation of Vitality and Health (New York, 1918). This cemented the position of the laboratory as the key site of nutritional calculation, a trend reflected in the creation of the Rowett Research Institute (1921) and the Dunn Nutritional Laboratory (1927). On the role of laboratory life in the development of nutritional science, and the ways in which its proliferating instruments, experimental procedures, and chemical formulas appeared to create a universal grid of knowledge across the world, see James Vernon, Modernity’s Hunger: How Imperial Britain Created and Failed to Solve the Problem of Hunger in the Modern World (Cambridge, Mass., forthcoming), chap. 5.

43 Michael Worboys, “The Discovery of Colonial Malnutrition between the Wars,” in David Arnold, ed., Imperial Medicine and Indigenous Societies (Manchester, 1988), 222; David Arnold, “The ‘Discovery’ of Colonial Malnutrition and Diet in Colonial India,” Indian Economic and Social History Review 31, no. 1 (1994): 26.

44 Robert McCarrison, Studies in Deficiency Diseases (London, 1921); H. M. Sinclair, The Work of Sir Robert McCarrison, with Additional Introductory Essays by W. R. Aykroyd and E. V. McCullom (London, 1953); Sir Robert McCarrison, Nutrition and National Health: Being the Cantor Lectures Delivered before the Royal Society of Arts 1936 (London, 1944 [1936]), 17–18.

45 Robert McCarrison, “Problems of Nutrition in India” (1932), in Sinclair, The Work of Sir Robert McCarrison, 267–68; McCarrison, Nutrition and National Health, 21; Robert McCarrison, “Memorandum on Malnutrition as a Cause of Physical Inefficiency and Ill-Health among the Masses in India” (1926), in Sinclair, The Work of Sir Robert McCarrison, 261.

46 McCarrison, “Problems of Nutrition in India,” 262; Audrey I. Richards, Hunger and Work in a Savage Tribe: A Functional Study of Nutrition among the Southern Bantu (Cleveland, Ohio, 1964 [1932]).

47 On colonial development, see Fred Cooper, “Modernizing Bureaucrats, Backward Africans, and the Development Concept,” in F. Cooper and R. Packard, eds., International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays on the History and Politics of Knowledge (Berkeley, Calif., 1997). McCarrison noted that mice fed on the “poor Britisher” diet were subject to a litany of woes: “stunted … badly proportioned … nervous and apt to bite the attendants … lived unhappily together and … began to kill and eat the weaker ones amongst them … prone to pulmonary and gastro-intestinal disease.” The prognosis for Britain’s racial health and social stability was gloomy. McCarrison, Nutrition and National Health, 24–25.

48 “Hungry England: An Inquiry,” Week-End Review 7, no. 157 (March 1, 1933): 264.

49 Ministry of Health, Nutrition: Report of Conference between Representatives of the Advisory Committee on Nutrition and Representatives of a Committee Appointed by the British Medical Association (London, 1934), 4, 7.

50 “Statement of Aims,” Bulletin of the Committee against Malnutrition 1 (March 1934): 1–2. F. Le Gros Clark and Marjorie Green were the respective secretaries of these organizations. On the formation of the Children’s Minimum Council, see Susan Pedersen, Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience (New Haven, Conn., 2004), 234–35.

51 McCarrison, Nutrition and National Health; John Boyd Orr, Food, Health and Income: Report on Adequacy of Diet in Relation to Income (London, 1936). Orr’s position had been earlier rehearsed in his The National Food Supply and Its Influence on Public Health: The Chadwick Lecture (London, 1934). See also G. C. M. McGonigle and J. Kirby, Poverty and Public Health (London, 1936).

52 McGonigle and Kirby, Poverty and Public Health, 142; Political and Economic Planning (PEP), “The Malnutrition Controversy,” Planning 88 (December 15, 1936): 8.

53 E. Burnett and W. R. Aykroyd, “Nutrition and Public Health,” Quarterly Bulletin of the Health Organisation of the League of Nations 4, no. 2 (1935): 323–474. Aykroyd succeeded McCarrison as director at Coonor in 1935. Vitamin deficiency tests were being developed by the late 1930s, but they were limited in their application to large-scale investigations. E. J. Bigwood, Guiding Principles for Studies on the Nutrition of Populations (Geneva, 1939), 147.

54 Burnett and Aykroyd, “Nutrition and Public Health,” 360–62. On margins of error, see Bigwood, Guiding Principles, 155.

55 Malcolm Muggeridge, The Thirties: 1930–1940 in Great Britain (London, 1967 [1940]), 281.

56 On the delicacy of the issue of parental responsibility, and MacDonald’s attempt to distance the Labour Party from the idea of state maintenance, see Stewart, “Ramsay MacDonald.”

57 Needy children were identified by teachers, attendance officers, and philanthropists, or by requests from parents. Inquiries into the family’s means were then conducted by care committees (or their paid investigators) or attendance officers, with varying degrees of thoroughness—from simply accepting parental statements to checking them with employers and Poor Law guardians. While some localities used differing scales of income per head after rent, others left the final decision on need to care, canteen, or education committees (or their chairs), as well as to headmasters or individual teachers. Mildred Emily Bulkley, The Feeding of School Children (London, 1914), 64–69. See also Parliamentary Papers, 1905 (Cd.2779), xlvii, Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Medical Inspection and Feeding of Children Attending Public Elementary Schools, vol. 1: Report and Appendices.

58 Harris, The Health of the Schoolchild, 78.

59 By 1909 there were only 284 full-time and 32 part-time school medical officers, and only 44 of them had been appointed solely in that capacity (with 22 of those working on a part-time basis). In 1920 there were a total of 2,003 doctors working as school medical officers or their assistants and 2,650 school nurses; those numbers had risen to 3,592 and 6,149 respectively by 1938. Harris, The Health of the Schoolchild, 56, 123–24.

60 Drawing upon Hutchison’s characterization of the diverse clinical indicators of poor nutrition, Newman instructed school medical officers to attend to the functional efficiency and well-being of the schoolchild’s whole body. It was “reasonable to suppose,” he suggested, that they were “as capable of assessing the nutrition of his patients, as the teacher is of judging the intelligence of members of his class.” Health of the School Child: Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer of the Board of Education for 1908 (1909), Cd. 5426, xxiii. Hutchison, Food and the Principles of Dietetics, chap. 3.

61 Bulkley, The Feeding of School Children, 170–71; Barbara Drake, Starvation in the Midst of Plenty: A New Plan for the State Feeding of School Children (London, 1933), 9–10; Save the Children Fund, Unemployment and the Child (London, 1933), 76–77; Wal Hannington, The Problem of the Distressed Areas (London, 1937), 82. Alarmed at the criticism being directed at Newman and his medical officers, the BMA defended them on the grounds that there was neither a “satisfactory and accepted routine method” to assess an individual’s nutritional condition nor “a satisfactory standard of ‘normal nutrition.'” Cited in Hurt, “Feeding the Hungry Schoolchild,” 195. Even the Medical Officer despairingly noted: “We must find out the clinical signs of malnutrition, for these we do not know.” Cited in Harris, The Health of the Schoolchild, 130–31.

62 The “more precise, uniform, and comparable classification[s]” approved were “excellent,” “normal,” “slightly subnormal,” and “bad”; the older supplementary categories of malnutrition “requiring observation” and “requiring treatment” were scrapped. Board of Education, “Minutes of Meeting of Medical Staff Committee, 28 Sept 1934,” PRO ED 50/78 (M456/171). A memo to Newman acknowledged that the report confirmed what “we have recognised for some time that the summary of these returns published annually will not bear detailed examination.” Board of Education, “Memo to Sir G. Newman from Cecil Maudsley 10.4.34 on Dr Simpson’s Report on Standards of Nutrition,” PRO ED 50/51 (M456/150).

63 For just two examples: “The Official Meaning of Malnutrition,” Bulletin of the Committee against Malnutrition 9 (July 1935): 28–31; R. H. Jones, “Physical Indices and Clinical Assessments of the Nutrition of Schoolchildren,” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 101, no. 1 (1938): 1–52.

64 J. A. Glover, “A Critical Examination of the Nutrition Returns over a Period of Five Years,” 23, PRO ED 50/204. For an earlier indication of doubt, in response to the criticisms of the CAM, see Maudsley’s memo “Deputation of Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations, 22 Oct 36,” PRO ED 50/216 (167A).

65 F. Le Gros Clark, ed., National Fitness: A Brief Essay on Contemporary Britain (London, 1938).

66 Charles Segal, Penn’orth of Chips: Backward Children in the Making, with an Introductory Note by Dr Cyril Burt (London, 1939), 122–23; Drake, Starvation in the Midst of Plenty, 15–16.

67 We know even less about factory canteens and community restaurants than we do about school meals, but for a preliminary charting of their connections, see Vernon, Modernity’s Hunger, chap. 7.

68 Although the number of school meals served daily had risen slightly between 1935 and 1939, from 143,000 to 160,000, it had fallen back to 130,000 by July 1940 before rising to a wartime peak of 1,650,000 by February 1945. Richard Titmuss neatly summarizes that whereas one child in thirty was fed at school at the beginning of the war, by its end one in three were receiving meals, even if only 14 percent of those were free. Richard Morris Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy (London, 1950), 510.

69 Burnett, “Rise and Decline,” 66; Harris, The Health of the Schoolchild, 196–97.

70 Le Gros Clark, Social History of the School Meals Service, 2.

71 Drake, Starvation in the Midst of Plenty, 16.

72 Eddie Williams, School Milk and Meals (Rogerstone, 1944), 3; Bulkley, The Feeding of School Children, 199.

73 Quoted in Bryant, School Feeding, 74; Austin Priestman, The Work of the School Medical Officer (London, 1914), 4; Williams, School Milk and Meals, 3. The initial 1906 Report on the Education (Provision of Meals) Act noted: “To many of the poorest children a well ordered meal, with its accompaniments of clean table-cloths, clean crockery, and seemliness of behaviour, is almost unknown; and it is hoped, with some confidence, that the object lessons supplied by the meals provided … will have more than a transitory effect upon the behaviour of the children who have received them.” Quoted in Charles E. Hecht, Rearing an Imperial Race: Containing a Full Report of the Second Guildhall Conference on Diet, Cookery and Hygiene, with Dietaries (London, 1913), 17.

74 National Union of Teachers and the Gloucestershire Training College of Domestic Science, School Canteen Handbook (Toddington, 1940), 8. This was a consistent theme among educationalists: see Millicent MacKenzie, “The School Meal,” in Hecht, Rearing an Imperial Race, 18, and Cyril Norwood, Headmaster of Harrow School, in National Union of Teachers, The Schools at Work: Being a Pictorial Survey of National Education in England and Wales (London, 1935), 9.

75 Bulkley, The Feeding of School Children, 169.

76 Hecht, Rearing an Imperial Race, 398; Board of Education, “Memorandum on Methods of Providing Meals for Children in Connection with Public Elementary Schools and on Dietaries Suitable for the Present Circumstances,” Circular 856, 15 August 1914, 6, Labour History Museum, WNC.26/1/1/1.

77 Board of Education, “Memorandum on Methods”; see also Nancy Sharman, Nothing to Steal: The Story of a Southampton Childhood (London, 1977), 39.

78 As Millicent MacKenze put it: “It is, of course, necessary to instruct the pupils, but once they understand their work, it is educationally better to make them as responsible as possible for the organization and carrying out of arrangements.” Hecht, Rearing an Imperial Race, 20.

79 On the proliferation of working-class memoirs and testimonies, see Chris Waters, “Autobiography, Nostalgia, and the Changing Practices of Working Class Selfhood,” in G. K. Behlmer and F. M. Levanthall, eds., Singular Continuities (Stanford, Calif., 2000), 178–95; and James Vernon, “Telling the Subaltern to Speak: Mass Observation and the Formation of Social History in Post-war Britain,” in Actas del II Congreso Internacional: Historia a Debate (Coruña, Spain, 2000), 139–50.

80 “London County Council Education (Provision of Meals) Act 1906: Rules to Be Observed in Connection with the Management of Dining Centres,” reproduced in Hecht, Rearing an Imperial Race, 267.

81 See the detailed correspondence in “Provision in Rural Areas: Supervision, 1936–1943,” PRO ED 11/300. Many teachers appear to have already been freely offering their voluntary services; they were rewarded with the dubious pleasure of a free meal. “Particulars Regarding the Provision of School Canteens,” 6, PRO ED 50/219.

82 The National Union of Teachers, which had wanted teachers to receive extra payment for “dinner duty,” lost this battle, if not the war. In 1968, supervising meals was finally classed as voluntary duty. Nan Berger, The School Meals Service: From Its Beginnings to the Present Day (Plymouth, 1990), 24. During the 1950s, the Ministry of Education was fond of blaming the lack of support by teachers for the poor uptake of school meals. See “Special Services General Files: Inquiry into the Take Up of School Meals, 1954–1955,” PRO ED 50/431.

83 This was especially the case in rural areas; see “School Dinners from Central Kitchens or Depots,” Herefordshire County Council, Education Committee, March 1947, in Herefordshire Record Office, Llanwarne Parish Records, G52/83.

84 Bulkley, The Feeding of School Children, 76–106.

85 At one such center in London in 1913, children were forced to “scramble for a dozen mugs, in complete contradiction to any lessons in manners of hygiene they may have been taught,” while at another they were “packed like sardines without elbow room to feed themselves properly.” George Rainey, “Paris and London,” in Hecht, Rearing an Imperial Race, 421. On their association with the workhouse, see Williams, School Milk and Meals, 5.

86 Segal, Penn’orth of Chips, 92.

87 The majority of these (at 347 schools) were in county boroughs where children lived at a greater distance from school, and thus returning home for a midday meal was difficult. “Particulars Regarding the Provision of School Canteens (as Distinct from Feeding Centres), 1936,” ED 50/219.

88 Of fifty-four areas inspected, only 5 percent were found to be “really good” and 20 percent were “entirely unsatisfactory,” with the remainder having so “many serious defects” that they could “not be looked upon as up to any reasonable standard.” “Provision of Meals,” Report of Edna Langley to Dr Glover, 4 April 1939, M 501/262.

89 “On other days, a spoon only is given the children.” Segal, Penn’orth of Chips, 92.

90 These designs probably originated from the Ministry of Works Experimental Building Research Station in Watford. One of these model canteen kitchens, complete with all the latest equipment from the newly produced Catalogue of School Canteen Equipment and sample wall finishes, was exhibited behind the Tate Gallery, where district school inspectors and LEA officials were invited to inspect it. See September 1943 memos from Agnes Miller and Miss Langley, as well as circular letter to LEAs, 13 October 1943, ED 50/219.

91 See C. Cameron, “School Canteens and Kitchens,” 20 September 1943, and “Comments on the Draft Explanatory Memorandum to the proposed Town and Country Planning Order,” 8 January 1944, HLG 71/899.

92 For a general consideration of the new conception of the social at the center of this program, see Andrew Saint, Towards a Social Architecture: The Role of School-Building in Post-war England (New Haven, Conn., 1987).

93 “Particulars of Proposals Noted in Buildings Section for Building Schools by Experimental and Demonstration Methods,” ED 150/23; “Ministry of Works Organisation: The Present Position,” 1, ED 150/156; “The Standards for School Premises Regulations, 1951,” Statutory Instruments, no. 1753; Medical Research Council and Building Research Group, “Joint Committee on Lighting and Vision: Proposed New Regulations for the Lighting of Schools,” ED 150/25.

94 By 1956, every scheme of permanent construction was calculated in terms of costs per square foot. Nine square feet were allowed for each primary dining space, ten square feet at secondary school. “Planning Requirements (General): Canteen Provision,” 1951–56, ED 150/104, G. L. Thornton to Sir Arthur Binns, 4 September 1956, “School Meals Service: Building Programme,” ED 50/760; “Tables to Show Approximate Costs of Ks, K.D.Rs and D.Rs of Various Sizes in Permanent Construction,” ED 50/760.

95 Only 25.5 percent of schools boasted their own purpose-built dining rooms, with a further 48.6 percent using assembly halls or other dual-function rooms and 12.1 percent still serving dinner in classrooms (a figure that rose to 30.4 percent in rural schools)—a factor acknowledged to deter some “from staying to dinner at school.” Some 13.8 percent of children dined away from their own schools, the vast majority (10 percent) in hired premises such as village or church halls. Ministry of Education, Report of an Inquiry into the Working of the School Meals Service (1955–56) (London, 1956).

96 On the competing merits of different materials and arrangements, see Willard Stanley Ford, Some Administrative Problems of the High School Cafeteria (New York, 1926). Laminated and stackable tables and chairs became the focus from the 1950s; see London County Council, School Furniture (London, 1958).

97 Bryant, School Feeding, 56; Priestman, The Work of the School Medical Officer, 3; Hecht, Rearing an Imperial Race, 400.

98 The work was overseen by its senior engineer in conjunction with its senior catering adviser. “Ministry of Works Organisation: The Present Position,” 1, ED 150/156. See, for example, Ministry of Education, School Meals Service: Equipment Catalogue, 1947 (London, 1947).

99 See the entire file of correspondence in “Wartime Meals: School Canteen Equipment, West Bromwich,” 1943, MAF 900/103. See also “Care and Maintenance of Insulated Containers,” School Meals Service: Canteen Leaflet, no. 4 (1951).

100 J. W. Beeson (Director of Education, Norwich) to W. D. Pile, 19 June 1952; also Norwich City Architect, “Memorandum, School Meals Service—Kitchen and Dining Rooms. Insulation and Prevention of Condensation,” 23 May 1952, ED 150/104. By the mid-1950s, the kitchens’ wooden working surfaces had also run afoul of the Ministry of Health’s new food hygiene regulations, which recommended the use of Formica or stainless steel tops. W. B. Ashplant to A & B General, “Food Hygiene Regulations, 1955,” 12 October 1956, ED 150/156.

101 For instance, anthropometric studies informed the new British standards for tables and chairs drawn up in 1955. With a sloping design to “fit the children” and prevent “bad posture,” they were produced in five sizes to accommodate the stages of child development and ensured a minimum table area allowance for each child. Strength and durability were stressed (wood or aluminum frames were subjected to performance tests), but so too was convenience (stackable for easy storage), hygiene (materials were “durable, non-absorbent, hygienic, and easily cleaned”), and silence (cushioned legs reduced noise and floor scratches). A. F. B. Nail (Assistant Technical Director, BSI) to Johnston Marshall (Chief Architect, Ministry of Education), 5 November 1953, ED 150/80; G. Weston (Technical Director, BSI) to W. D. Pile, “School Furniture Press Conference,” 7 October 1955, ED 150/80; BSI, “Sub-Committee—Dining Tables and Chairs of Technical Committee—School Furniture, Revised Draft Standard for School Dining Tables and Chairs,” April 1955, ED 150/80.

102 Drake, Starvation in the Midst of Plenty, 16.

103 London County Council, Meals for School Children (London, 1947), 5. See also London County Council, Education in London, 1945–1954: A Report by the Education Officer (London, 1954), 87.

104 Bryant, School Feeding, 50–51.

105 F. Le Gros Clark, The School Child’s Taste in Vegetables: An Inquiry Undertaken by F. Le Gros Clark, BA, and Presented to the Education Committee, Foreword by J. C. Drummond (Hertford, 1943), 13, 14.

106 Priestman, The Work of the School Medical Officer, 13, 4.

107 On the growing popularity of porridge at home given its use at school breakfasts, see Bulkley, The Feeding of School Children, 200.

108 Ernie Benson, To Struggle Is to Live: A Working Class Autobiography in Two Volumes (Newcastle, 1979), 1: 39.

109 Le Gros Clark, The School Child’s Taste in Vegetables, 11.

110 Kathleen Dayus, Her People (London, 1982), 15; Sharman, Nothing to Steal, 39; Benson, To Struggle Is to Live, 1: 44–45; J. G. Atherton, Home to Stay: Stretford in the Second World War (Manchester, 1991), 6, 15.

111 E. R. Hartley, How to Feed the Children: Bradford’s Example (Bradford, 1908), quoted in Laura Mason, “Learning How to Eat in Public: School Dinners,” in Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery: Public Eating (London, 1991), 208.

112 Quoted in Mason, “Learning How to Eat in Public,” 208.

113 For characteristic examples from the testimonies of the poor, see Grace Foakes, Between High Walls: A London Childhood (London, 1972), 39; Benson, To Struggle Is to Live, 1: 39; and Fenner Brockway, Hungry England (London, 1932), 32.

114 On the hated visit of the school doctor or nurse, see Barbara Vaughan, Growing Up in Salford, 1919–1928 (Manchester, 1983), 9, and Mary H. Dagnah, Castle Hall Revisited: Stalybridge in the Nineteen-thirties (Manchester, 1995), 5.

115 See Richards, Hunger and Work in a Savage Tribe, 8, and Audrey I. Richards, Land, Labour and Diet in Northern Rhodesia: An Economic Study of the Bemba Tribe (London, 1939), 6.

116 This was an understanding that became central to the policies of the Ministry of Food, especially its Food Advice Division, during World War II. Its chief scientific adviser, Jack Drummond, insisted from the outset that the ministry acknowledge “the psychological importance of traditional foods.” Ministry of Food, How Britain Was Fed in War Time (London, 1946), 46.

117 Quoted in Segal, Penn’orth of Chips, 93.

118 See, for example, Board of Education, “Memorandum on Methods,” 7–10.

119 Brinson to Maudsley, 23 March 1937, in Board of Education, “Dietaries; the Oslo Breakfast; the London Health Dinner,” 1937–1943, ED 50/219.

120 A rare success for Edna Langley, the inspector of provision of meals arrangements, who had previously failed to ensure the general adoption of the “Health Dinner” developed by the London County Council as a modified version of the Oslo Breakfast. Board of Education, “Dietaries; the Oslo Breakfast; the London Health Dinner.” On the Oslo Breakfast, developed by Oslo’s professor of hygiene Carl Schi\otz, see Inger Johanne Lyngo, “The Oslo Breakfast: An Optimal Diet in One Meal—On the Scientification of Everyday Life as Exemplified by Food,” Ethnologia Scandinavica 28 (1998): 62–76.

121 For example, supervisors, cook-supervisors, cook caterers, cooks-in-charge, cooks, assistant cooks, kitchen assistants, and storekeepers. Board of Education, “Staff for the School Meals Service,” Circular 1631 (24 June 1943); “Special Services General Files: Staffing of School Canteens and Kitchens, 1947–52,” ED 50/502.

122 Note that both the already cited School Canteen Handbook (1940) and Balanced Menus for School Canteen Dinners (London, 1947; 2nd ed., 1958) were written in collaboration with domestic science experts (in addition to being the Surrey County Council’s school meals officer, Morkam was the former head of the Domestic Science Department at Wimbledon Technical College). The London County Council’s Meals for School Children was written by W. J. O. Newton, the council’s chief officer of meals services. For other canteen manuals, see M. B. Neary, Canteen Management and Cookery (London, 1940); Catherine H. MacGibbon, Canteen Management (Christchurch, 1941); F. Le Gros Clark, The School Child and the School Canteen (Hertford, 1942); John Douglas Mitchell, Successful Canteen Management (London, 1946); Empire Tea Bureau, The Small Canteen: How to Plan and Operate a Modern Meal Service (London, 1947); Dick T. Kennedy, Industrial Catering and Canteen Management (London, 1949); and Jack Hampton, Canteen Cookery (London, 1953). See also the journal Nutrition and Canteen Catering, published in London from 1946.

123 Mason, “Learning How to Eat in Public,” 209. The survey was conducted by and BBC Good Food magazine, which published the results in September 2003, 105.

124 Harris, The Health of the Schoolchild, 200, 201.

125 These are areas where recent work has begun to trace different histories of the social in Britain: Christopher Hamlin, Public Health and Social Justice in the Age of Chadwick: Britain, 1800–1854 (Cambridge, 1998); Joyce, The Rule of Freedom; Philippa Grand, “‘Between Work and Sleep’: The Problem of Leisure and Civil Society in Interwar Britain” (Ph.D. diss., University of Manchester, 2002); and Daniel Ussishkin, “Morale: A Concept for Democracy” (Ph.D. diss., forthcoming, Berkeley, 2006).

126 Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives (London, 1986), 122.

127 Gareth Stedman Jones, “Why Is the Labour Party in a Mess?” in Jones, Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History, 1832–1982 (Cambridge, 1983), 246.

128 On the persistence of the stigma of free school meals, see Frank Field, The Stigma of Free School Meals: A Child Poverty Action Group Report (London, 1974).