The children commenting on their idealized or imagined school environments, both in 1967 and today, did so within an inherited school design and tradition. The edible landscape, and particularly the school meal, is immediately recognizable as a fundamental feature of schooling, particularly in the UK where the school day was established early in its history as lasting late into the afternoon. Some European countries established early a system whereby the school day terminates around lunchtime, children returning to their homes to eat. In Germany, from the early twentieth century it became customary to freely provide warm milk and a roll to school children. Here, as in Scandinavia, children today carry a snack to school, consumed together with their peers mid morning (see below). In the United States, the midday school meal became common practice in the early decades of the twentieth century as concern grew about the health of the growing population. On ‘The Vital Question of School Lunches’, Mary Josephine Mayer noted in 1911
That large numbers of school children are undernourished is a statement which no longer admits of dispute. The fact has been recognized and dealt with in Europe, and now we of the United States are waking up to conditions that cry aloud for action… How much longer shall we ignore the plain fact that education can come only after bread?21
That children’s cognitive capacities were limited through undernourishment was recognized at this time by commentators who were campaigning for free and compulsory school meal provision as a fundamental feature of state (or public) education.
Mental disability is not only preventable but in many cases curable. In a large number of instances, after the careful attention and midday dinner of the special schools, the children are returned to the elementary schools with a new lease of mental vigour.22
By 1931, one third of school children in the United States were receiving a midday meal. But already, the cafeteria system which facilitated some choice was leading to concerns surrounding the nutritional value of what was consumed. It was suggested that teachers should always eat with the children and exhibit model behaviour in their choice of foods and that menus should be posted in classrooms ‘so that the child, guided by his teacher, may dwell upon his purchases in advance’.23
The school meal service in England and Wales, with its origins in the 1906 Education (School Meals) Act, was associated with notions of progress, advancement, improvement of the health and well-being of the nations’ children and of the ‘race’. Indeed, it was regarded as an educational and ‘civilizing process’ in itself. The school dinner may…be made to serve as a valuable object lesson and used to reinforce the practical instruction in hygiene, cookery and domestic economy.24
With its roots in philanthropy and voluntary welfare provision for undernourished children, by 1906 the state’s provision of school meals was argued for as ‘not a work of relief, but of education.’ The link between nourishment of body and mind was established.25
This was also the case in the United States where the school canteen was seen by educational experts as a key area of social education. The lunch room was regarded as a ‘social behaviour laboratory and school health centre’. It provided opportunity and practice for responsibility, consideration and courtesy. It opened opportunities for the teaching of ‘proper health habits, personal hygiene, good conduct, selfcontrol, promptness, unselfishness, and thoughtfulness’.26 The education of children about food was considered vital for the well-being of society on both sides of the Atlantic.
The lunch work should be a vital part of the health teaching in every school. The children who stay at school for lunch need hot food at the noon hour, but that is not all. An excellent opportunity is offered for instruction and training in right food habits, and teachers should take advantage of this to the fullest extent possible. The lunch at school should never become a perfunctory matter.
It is not just a question of providing food, but is a means of teaching the boys and girls to eat in the right way the foods that are good for them.27
It is clear from early accounts that the association of school children with food and drink was also
seen as potentially chaotic. It served to remind those seeking to ‘improve’ the morals and behaviour of the ‘lower’ classes, of the chasm of difference that existed between the social classes. One detects a sense of fear and revulsion in these early accounts of collective consumption. It was noted that in many cases dinner was eaten in ‘a perfect pandemonium of noise’ and such ‘disorderly conduct’ as the throwing of food was reported by the Parliamentary Committee looking into the working of the Education (School Meals) Act in 1910.28 Thus from its inception, the edible landscape of the school can be seen to have been a territory of contested desires and intentions, a battleground between the perceived needs of the adult and the child and a exhibition space for the product of educational endeavour.
From the early days of the implementation of the Education (School Meals) Act in 1906, schools in England and Wales experienced great difficulties in finding adequate and appropriate space to prepare food and to serve it to children. Schools were providing hot food and drink in classrooms, halls, cellars and outhouses. When the pupil’s desk was turned into a table for the purpose of eating, teachers were concerned to hasten the dining period in order that desks could be cleaned of debris. In the early 1900s, especially in the USA, it
was becoming common for separate dining areas to be located in the basement or roof space of some of the larger schools. The use of the top floor of a building for dining was considered advantageous since ventilation and the removal of odours from the rest of the school was desirable.
Ideally, spaces devoted to the preparation and consumption of food should be cut off from the rest of the school building. The use of the school roof, with fabric canopy, is evident from the above photograph from a New York site taken during the first decade of the twentieth century.
Schools in France at this time sometimes went to great trouble in ridding the school of the vestiges of food preparation and consumption. According to one account:
The boys ate at little marble tables. As soon as they had finished, a relay of servants carried off plates and dishes; the windows were thrown wide open; a mighty hydrant was opened, and a deluge was sent flying over tables, floor, and walls; and in a moment, crusts, crumbs, smells and foul air disappeared in one gush.29
The specified dining area and kitchens of schools designed during the 1920s symbolized modernization, progress and quality in educational
provision. Partly, this was a practical necessity as schools were drawing pupils from ever-larger catchment areas and returning home for the midday break was an impossibility for many. On the development of ‘The Urban School’ in 1920s London, it was noted ‘The secondary schools of the time are noteworthy for the provision of a full kitchen and dining service evidencing the fact that they were intended as centres of excellence drawing their pupils from a wide catchment area’.30
The school hall is at the heart of the traditional school. This rectangular space was originally, at least for the poor, the school room in its entirety. The hall, whether central or adjacent in relation to classrooms and other facilities, served in the majority of schools built in the twentieth century as the principal gathering space for assembly, celebration, physical exercise, public examination, performance and the consumption of food. In addition, the hall in the state school took on a symbolic function to suggest the school’s unity, ethos and essential hierarchical nature. In the English public school and in the majority of grammar schools, which attempted to emulate the public school, the hall typically could seat the whole school, with masters assembled on a raised platform, the headmaster seated centrally. In the public schools of Great Britain, these arrangements were continued when the hall was turned over to its dining function, masters and prefects having special seating arrangements emphasizing their relative power and status in the school.
This large communal space was conceived of by planners of state schools as multi-purpose for reasons of economics.
This space can be used perhaps for only two hours a day and does not earn its keep. Architects therefore looked for other areas in the building which, if suitably designed, could be used for dining as well as for their primary purpose… Occasionally classrooms have been used by providing sliding or folding partitions which can be removed to open up a large common area in which the midday meal can be taken. It must be admitted that some arrangements for dual use of dining space involve an element of inconvenience, (however)…it represents the common sense compromise which, as householders, we are prepared to make in our own homes in order to ensure value for money.31
As a consequence, the utilization of the school hall and even the classroom for dining purposes has become ubiquitous in the experience of children and their teachers over generations. Unlike the essentially adult landscape of the work place, where communal eating in canteens is set apart from spaces devoted to production or manufacturing, and other forms of recreation, the edible landscape of the school has historically overlaid its other functions. However, the demand by children for separate and specialized eating areas, like those which have become expected in the adult world of work have been over time and remain today as the dual use of spaces – especially the school hall – still cause misery for many children.