National School Lunch Program (NSLP)

Background and Development in Europe

Last Published: 05/23/2017

By Gordon W. Gunderson

Early European Experience

Though various efforts at school food services were carried on in this country as far back as the 1890s, some European countries were operating rather extensive programs a hundred years before. In 1790 a combined program of teaching and feeding hungry, vagrant children was begun in Munich, Germany, by Benjamin Thompson, known also a Count Rumford. An American born physicist and statesman, he spent his early years in New England. During the Revolutionary War he became distrusted because of his activities and contacts with royalists, and in 1784 went to England and from there he traveled to Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. While in Munich he established the Poor People's Institute, involving a program under which poor, unemployed adults were required to work for clothing and food by making clothing for the army. The children were also required to work part time in the forenoon and afternoon. During the hours between their work schedules they were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic.

The food served to children and adults consisted mainly of soup made from potatoes, barley, and peas. Meat was not included in the diet because of its high cost. Because of a lack of adequate funding for his projects, Count Rumford was constantly seeking to develop meals which would provide the best nutrition at the lowest possible cost.

His assistance in developing public mass feeding was sought by many countries, and he established large programs in England, Germany, Scotland, France and Switzerland.

In London, for example, 60,000 persons were fed daily from Count Rumford's soup kitchen. Such large operations challenged him to develop more efficient food preparation facilities, and he is credited with having invented the double boiler, kitchen range, baking oven, fire-less cooker, pressure cooker and drip coffee pot, all of them being forerunners of the steam jacketed kettle, compartment steamer, and commercial ovens used so extensively in school food service programs today. 2


In 1875, needy children were supplied free text-books, clothing and food by The Philanthropic School Society in Hamburg. Similar societies sprang up in other cities as well. Privately funded societies for the special purpose of school feeding were organized later, the "Society for Feeding Needy School Children" at Dresden in 1880 being one of the first. However, these were not as extensive as the school societies subsidized by the cities.

A departure from the school feeding program in Germany was the organization and operation of "Vacation Colonies." Under this program, sickly and weak children from crowded areas of cities were given a vacation in the country for a few weeks each summer. The programs were sponsored mostly by teachers and doctors. The work and accomplishments of the vacation colonies was discussed at their convention held in Leipzig in 1890.

This was followed by an investigation into the need for school feeding under the backing of the government. A report of the investigation was published in 1896. There were at that time 79 cities operating school feeding programs. The report stimulated such widespread interest that in 1897 a bill was introduced in the Reichstag which would have provided for school meals in all cities. The bill was defeated on the representation that its passage would cause an influx of people to the cities.

Nevertheless, it encouraged expansion of school feeding by local societies subsidized by city governments. One survey indicated school feeding was carried on by 239 cities of 10,000 population or over, and 189 cities reported feeding a total of 111,000 children or about 6 percent of the school population.


A great Frenchman, Victor Hugo, while exiled in Guernsey in 1865, provided the funds for hot meals for children in a nearby school. Six years later, "The Society for People's Kitchens in the Public Schools" was established in Angers, France. The objective was to furnish meals at school to children who were unable to pay. A two-cent charge was made to those who could pay.

In 1849, the battalion of the National Guard in the second district in Paris turned over a surplus fund in its treasury to district authorities to form a nucleus for an organization that was to help poor children get a schooling. In 1862, another district adopted the plan, and in 1867 the value of such funding had become so evident that the school law passed that year contained a section authorizing the establishment of school funds in every commune in France.

The statutes provided for use of the funds for sharing in medical inspection, school lunches, provision for holidays, excursions, vacation schools and whatever special services the local school authorities might deem essential to the welfare of the children. As early as 1867, Victor Duray, then minister of public instruction, had requested school officials to give special attention to the nutrition of the children. This resulted in establishing school lunch programs for needy children in about 464 places.

Paris began school canteens in 1877, providing meals at public expense for children whose parents' names were on the Poor Board list. Two years later, the city council voted to support the program and canteens were set up in every school district. Initially, a part of the support was derived from local sources. However, the city subsidy was increased from year to year until the total cost was at city expense.

Teachers supervised the lunch programs but required extra pay for their services, 25 cents per day. Participation was open to all children, regardless of ability to pay. Those who could pay were charged an amount equal to the cost of the food. Cost of equipment and labor was not included. The anonymity of children receiving free meals was fully protected through a system of lunch ticket sales. Children who could pay were required to do so, and identical tickets were given free of charge to the children who could not pay.

In the school year 1908-09, there were 853 canteens in the schools of Paris supplying meals to 588 schools with 38,531 children participating. Thirty-two percent of the meals were paid for, the remaining 68 percent being served free. The average cost per meal was 3.5 cents and the average charge per meal to paying students was 2.9 cents. Outside of Paris, a 1909 report showed 2,867 canteens in operation in France, serving lunches to 147,974 children.


In England, the passage in 1905 of the Education (Provision of Meals) Act was the culmination of the efforts of 365 private, charitable organizations in attempting to provide meals at school for needy children, and a reflection of national concern over the physical condition of the populace. Shortly before the close of the Boer War, the country became aroused over a statement by Major-General Frederick Maurice that three out of every five men seeking enlistment in the army were found to be physically unfit. Shortly after the statement had been published, the King appointed The Royal Commission on Physical Training to study the programs of physical training in schools and to determine what ought to be done to improve the national physique and thus build up the army. 

The Commission came to the conclusion that "among the causes which tell against the physical welfare of the population, the lack of proper nourishment is one of the most serious," and that "the question of the proper and sufficient feeding of children is one which has the closest possible connection with any scheme which may be adopted for their physical and equally for their mental work." 3  A recommendation was made for the establishment of school lunches for which the children would pay a small fee.

The following year, a new committee was appointed to determine the reason for the deteriorating of the race, if this were actually the case. Sixty-eight witnesses, including 37 physicians, were consulted. The recommendations of this committee were the same -- the need to provide adequate meals at school. A third committee made further studies, and finally a fourth committee confirmed the reports of previous commissions and committees and the Provision of Meals Act was passed by Parliament in December 1905. The Act provided that "When the local education authority ... resolve that any of the children in attendance at any public elementary school within their area are unable by reason of lack of food to take full advantage of the education provided them, the local education authority shall take such steps as they think fit to provide for such children, under such regulations and conditions as the local education authority may prescribe (including if they so resolve, the making of a charge to recover the cost from the parent or guardian), such food as the local education authority may consider requisite to enable the said children to take full advantage of the education provided for them.”  4

The circular sent out to schools by the National Board of Education concerning the intent of the Act stated, among other things ". . . and it aims at securing that for this purpose suitable meals shall be available just as much for those whose parents are in a position to pay as for those to whom food must be given free of cost."  5

Medical inspection was added to the program in 1907, and the serving of meals through vacation periods was authorized in 1914. In 1934, appropriations to the Milk Marketing Board provided milk to school children free of charge or at a price of one-half penny per 1/3 pint. In the 1938-39 school year, nearly 700,000 British children received free meals, representing about 95 percent of the ordinary meals served. Sixty-five percent of the milk served was free.  6


By royal decree in 1900, Holland authorized municipalities to supply food and clothing to public or private school children who were unable, because of the lack of food and clothes, to go regularly to school or to those who probably would not continue to attend school regularly unless food and clothes were provided. Thus Holland became the first country to adopt national legislation specifically to provide school lunches.


In Switzerland lunches were provided to about 8 percent of the primary school children by private societies. This was done to encourage attendance by children who lived long distances from school and could not go home for the noon-day meal. An investigation was made into the situation by one Dr. Huber. He found that teachers supported school feeding enthusiastically because of better attendance, improved attention, and better scholastic work by the children. Dr. Huber's findings and recommendations resulted in a national order being issued in 1903 making it an obligation on the part of municipalities to furnish food and clothing to children in need. Consequently the program grew rapidly, and in 1906 the use of State funds was authorized for this purpose. However, the amount of local support could not be reduced because of the receipt of state funds.

Dr. F. Erismann of Zurich made a study of school lunches throughout Switzerland and found them to be generally inadequate in protein and fat. Among his four recommendations for management and improvement of the meals is the following: "The school lunch should be a full nourishing meal. The portions should have enough food value to furnish 816 calories or one-half the day's required total of calories per child. It should be especially rich in protein and fat and the food values should be distributed in about the following amounts: 40 grams protein, 26 grams fat, 100 grams carbohydrate for a ten-year-old child. Proper variety should be insisted on."  7

Other European Cities

By the early 1900s, school feeding had spread throughout most of the European countries. In Milan and San Remo, Italy, meals had been furnished during the 1890s and the responsibility was taken over by the municipalities. By 1914, some 50 Italian cities were conducting some kind of school feeding programs. In Austria, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark and Norway programs were underway. 

Norway's "Oslo Breakfast" was a new venture in school feeding in Norway, although Christiania (Oslo) had been providing noon-day meals since 1897. The Oslo Breakfast consisted of: 1/2 pint milk, whole meal bread, cheese, 1/2 orange, and 1/2 apple. From September to March, one dose of cod-liver oil was included. This program spread to other parts of Scandinavia very rapidly, and was tried out in London as an experiment to determine its effect upon 130 children from poor families entitled to free meals. Said Professor J. C. Drummond of London University: "The effects have been remarkable." Children were free from the usual skin complaints, and boys gained in height 26 percent more than those not participating in the experiment. 


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2  Samuel C. Brown, "Count Rumford - Physicist Extraordinary," Garden City, New York, Doubleday & Co, Inc.
3  Louise Stevens Bryant, School Feeding: Its History and Practice at Home and Abroad, Philadelphia and London, J. B. Lippincott 1913, p 22.
4  A Bill to Amend the Education Act of 1902, Provision of Meals Act of 1905, British Parliamentary Papers, 1905 (132) i-p 485.
5  Louise Stevens Bryant, School Feeding: Its History and Practice at Home and Abroad, Philadelphia and London, J. B. Lippincott, 1913, PP 44-45.
6  The School Lunch Program and Agricultural Surplus Disposal, The Bureau of Agricultural Economics, USDA, Miscellaneous Publication No. 467, October 1941.
7  Louise Stevens Bryant, School Feeding: Its History and Practice at Home and Abroad, Philadelphia and London, J. B. Lippincott, 1913, p 137.