Cincinnati Served America’s First School Lunches in 1908


Ella Walsh was worried about her students. Walsh was a teacher at Jackson School, deep in the poorest pocket of Cincinnati’s West End and her students were distracted, lethargic and, most obviously, hungry. As the American Primary Teacher magazine [February 1911] reported:

“Miss Ella Walsh, a teacher in that school, was so impressed with the hunger depicted in the faces of the children, many of whom it was found upon inquiry came breakfastless to school, while others went dinnerless at noon, or shared in the pot of beer they were forced by their parents to buy, that she conceived the idea of furnishing all who desired a low-priced lunch.”

Ella Walsh, who started the first school lunch program in the United States, weighs pupils in the 1919 Cincinnati Post photograph. Students in the photo are Joe Gorman, Edward Hodges, Margaret McGurk, and Alexander Hess.
Ella Walsh, who started the first school lunch program in the United States, weighs pupils in the 1919 Cincinnati Post photograph. Students in the photo are Joe Gorman, Edward Hodges, Margaret McGurk, and Alexander Hess.

Cincinnati Post, 5 November 1919; Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Walsh would have known about hunger from her father, who had emigrated from Ireland at the height of the Great Famine. Walsh passed her idea along, probably through Jackson Principal C.J. O’Donnell, and soon the Cincinnati School Board gave their approval, and some funding. Under the headline “City To Feed Poor Tots In Her Schools,” The Cincinnati Post [20 April 1908] reported:

“The Board of Education will install a restaurant in the basement of the Jackson School, Fifth and Mound-sts., within two weeks, where children who are not fed at home will be served hot sandwiches and soup for one or two cents.”

The American Primary Teacher magazine called the experiment “one of the most unique lunch rooms in perhaps the entire country.” The magazine reported that the Jackson School penny lunch program was a first:

“So successful has the ‘penny lunch’ proven that several other schools in the poorer sections of the city have adopted the plan. Indeed, other cities hearing of the success attending the experiment are beginning to feed the poor of their schools with the popular penny lunch.”

Within a month of its first meal, the school lunch program had demonstrated its effectiveness. Under a front-page headline of “Soup Cures Stupids,” The Cincinnati Post [22 May 1908] reported a teacher’s not-quite-sarcastic response when a reporter asked if the program worked:

“The teacher replied with a counter-question: ‘Did you ever try to work when you were weak or hungry? Then you ought to know.’”

Initially, lunch was soup served in white enameled cups, with egg salad sandwiches offered during recess, but the menu increased over the years. By 1911, American Primary Teacher reported quite a spread:

“Stepping down into the large lunch room upon a recent noon, we found an abundant supply of baked potatoes (sweet and Irish), sandwiches, vegetable soup, baked beans, and delicacies like apple sauce, apples, graham wafers, figs, and ice cream—these all awaiting the charge of hungry troops.”

Although billed as a “penny luncheon,” the Jackson School program charged a penny for a variety of items, so soup and a sandwich would have cost two cents and some apple sauce or ice cream would have cost another penny. Parents loved the idea, according to the Post:

“A bowl of soup costs a cent. ‘Even the poorest parents seem to find this a cheap way of providing lunch for their children. They send word that they are delighted with this plan,’ said Miss Walsh. And if a hungry boy or girl doesn’t happen to have the penny the soup is none the less forthcoming.”

The idea spread gradually. A 1918 article reported that 20 Cincinnati schools now had lunch programs serving approximately 10,000 meals a day. By 1919, the price of lunch had risen to a nickel, and the organizers measured success by weighing the schoolchildren to show that they were gaining weight by eating lunch at school. Pupils who bought the nickel lunches added an average of six pounds. According to the Post [5 Nov 1919]:

“Many schools now have penny lunchrooms, but the idea was born at Jackson School. Miss Ella Walsh, teacher at the school, being the founder of the first penny lunchroom. She still manages it.”

Ella Walsh never married, nor did most of her siblings. In 1900, age 38, she lived at 420 Hawthorne Avenue in Price Hill with her father, an unmarried brother and three unmarried sisters. Ten years later, her father now dead, Walsh and her unmarried brother, Thomas, had moved around the block to the south end of Grand Ave. with two unmarried sisters and a married sister with her husband. In 1920, Walsh, two sisters, and her brother were still living on Grand.

Ella Walsh retired when she was almost 70 and died in 1932. The inventor of the school lunch is buried in Price Hill’s New St. Joseph Cemetery.

(This post was inspired by a Facebook post from Anne Delano Steinert, who runs the Look Here! Project.)

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities


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