Sunday, August 15, 2010

You're Invited - August 22

Victims of a hostile takeover

You are invited to the next meeting of the 
Culinary Historians of Atlanta

The Ice Man Goeth

In 1923 an ice refrigerator, known today as an icebox, cost less than $30.  Ice was plentiful and cheap.  In contrast, the least expensive electric refrigerator was $450, and was made with flammable refrigerants.  Electricity was costly and scarce, especially in rural areas.  So, why in the world did the ice men and the icebox disappear?  What were the public and backroom deals that led to the downfall of ice refrigeration?  Who promoted the switch?  Was the public duped?  Did people really need a new Frigidaire refrigerator (and color matching electric range)?

Millie Coleman will tell this tale. Millie doesn't just lecture. She creates a series of characters from a particular era to to create a new genre -- part performance art, part informational.  Playing the part of one Mary Engle Pennington, a 1920s chemist and director of the ice industry's Household Refrigeration Bureau, she will explain how refrigeration, sanitation and nutrition science, along with the Irish potato famine, propelled American society's craze for appetizer aspics, gelatin salads, jiggly Jell-O desserts and ice box pies -- all of which which paved the way for the institutionalized foods we eat today.

Open to the public. $5 per person Free to CHA members (CHA dues are $15 per year). 

Date: Sunday, August 22, 2010
Time: 2-4 pm
1937 Lakeside Parkway, Tucker, GA     30084
 Please RSVP by sending a comment or through our Facebook page: 
              Facebook address is Culinary Historians of Atlanta 

Upcoming events: 

September 26 - The Herbs of Shakespeare - herbs that were used in Elizabethan times
October 17 - Relishing History - the history of three condiments - make your own mustard!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Brief History of the National School Lunch Program

School lunch in Tokyo includes rice, soup, fish, pickled cucumbers and milk
The National School Lunch Program is getting a bad rap these days. A free lunch for low-income children? Is it a communist conspirancy? A muddle-headed liberal give-away program? Why are school lunches so high in calories and low in quality? A recent study found that school lunches in the US are nutritionally lacking. Unfortunately, the study was published in Canada. It was also published in California - click here for more info. 

Sometimes, in a case like this, it's instructive to look at the reason such a large and dysfunctional program ever came to be. The reasons are, to say the least, enlightening.  

The National School Lunch Program began in 1946 in the interest of national security. It was also a sort of "give-away" program for farmers, mainly as a way to distribute excess commodity foods, such as cheese. 

During both World Wars One and Two, an astounding 40% of military inductees  of both sexes were rejected for service because of poor health, much of which was related to poor childhood nutrition. Twenty percent alone were rejected for poor dental health. Other medical conditions included rickets, pellagra, and goiter. Also, there were a large number of inductees who lacked basic academic skills. The link between eating and learning was well understood. as it has been for hundreds of years. As an example, an iodine deficiency results in both goiters and mental insufficiency.

Ironically, during the same time period, farmers were unable to sell all the food they produced. One of the tragedies of the Great Depression was that people starved while farmers produced an abundance of food. But people had no money to buy food -- and the farmers needed money to keep producing food. The farmers were forced to destroy tons and tons of good food in the name of economics.
Dairymen dumping milk during the Great Depression
Now, Congress had been supplying funds to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a school lunches since 1932, but funding was spotty. For instance, the first grant went to a few counties in southern Missouri to pay people to cook school lunches. This was actually as part of a jobs program, not out of concern for child nutrition. Most of the grants were year-to-year rather than long-term. School districts were wary of investing in proper lunchroom equipment if they weren't sure they would be able to pay people to operate it or purchase foodstuffs in future years.

So in 1946, the National School Lunch Act was enacted. Section 2 of the Act defines its dual purpose:

 "It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation's children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the States, through grants-in aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of food and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation and expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs.”

The program was successful. As a result, it was expanded to include breakfast and there was even special legislation enacted to improve access to milk. It spurred tons of research on childhood nutrition and the links between nutrition and learning.  The USDA has posted a very interesting History of the National School Lunch Program on its website. Check it out for the full history. 
Partly as a result of these programs, we understand more about good food for kids. It's a shame that the present state of child nutrition in America is in crisis. These days, the biggest reason that military enlistees are turned down is obesity.  Retired military officers are supporting the reform of school lunches, calling obesity a threat to national security. 
School lunch in Washington, D.C.  YUMMY!
This is a fascinating topic that has captured the public's attention. Jamie Oliver, a British celebrity chef,  did a reality series on school lunches that has the industry a-buzzing (he did the same thing last year in a British school lunch program). Top Chef had a special episode where the contestants were expected to cook a tasty, nutritious school lunch within the same budgetary constraints that school districts are forced to live with. It was hilarious. My pet peeve about this episode was that celebrity chef Sam Kass, who was a guest judge, stated categorically that the tomato is a fruit. Shortly after the segment aired, the Obama administration made this guy some kind of school lunch guru. He doesn't even know the difference between a fruit and a vegetable. Clearly, the cult of personality has seduced the liberal left of which I was once a part. 
A vegetable

Naturally, I want to get into the act, too. Over the next few months, this blog will examine the historic context for our national nutritional pickles. Stay tuned and comment often.