School Lunch, 1946

      37 Comments on School Lunch, 1946

A reader sent me a link to a site promoting an exhibit at the National Archives titled What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? Here’s a brief description from the site:

From the farm to the dinner table, explore the records of the National Archives that trace the Government’s effect on what Americans eat.

Without actually seeing the exhibit, I’m going to guess whoever created it has a more positive view of the government’s effect on what we eat than I do.  But as I clicked around the site, I found this school-lunch recipe from 1946, which the exhibit states was the first year of the nationwide school lunch program:

Eighteen ounces of flour.  Okay, not my favorite ingredient, but it’s not much for 100 portions.  Now look at the rest of the recipe:  2 ¼ pounds of table fat, 2 ¼ gallons of milk,  18 eggs and 10 pounds of ham.

If that was on the menu in schools today, my girls might not be packing their own lunches.




From the farm to the dinner table, explore the records of the National Archives that trace the Government’s effect on what Americans eat.

37 thoughts on “School Lunch, 1946

  1. Mark. Gooley

    I wonder what “table fat” is. Perhaps some mix of animal fats, largely pork fat and beef tallow? There is some nutrition information on line for “table fat, NFS” but I can’t to find what it is, nor what NFS is (like USP, only for food?) Maybe it could be hydrogenated even then. The Internet has vast lacunae.

    Perhaps the type of fat depended on what was available. Unfortunately, margarine did become popular during WWII, largely because butter was rationed.

  2. fredt

    1946 wheat was not like modern wheat. It would be quite low in protein, and higher in minerals, lower in carbohydrates by about 1/3. The milk would have been whole, possible even raw and fresh. That should have been a thick rich soup/sauce. That all sounds familiar, as my mother made a white sauce with canned salmon that was similar, butter, milk, flour, salt, heat, thickened as soon as it came to the boil, add salmon, and a bit of pepper. It was good. All this is making me hungry. Thanks for the memory. I think I will try it with find ground flax and almonds to thicken.

    It looks like a good recipe. I might try that one, using a little almond or coconut flour instead of wheat flour.

  3. Lepoth

    Well, they obviously dropped it because it made kids fa…no, that can’t be it.

    Wait, they obviously changed because of the bad ta…no, that can’t be it either. How can you go wrong with ham and eggs?

    Uh…it was too expensive?

    It probably wasn’t supporting enough grain farmers.

  4. wannaBeaMiser


    What was the average American’s life expectancy in 1946 compared to today?

    I’m not sure, but it would be a meaningless comparison anyway. We live longer on average these days, but that’s the result of pacemakers, bypass surgeries, defibrillators, stents, antibiotics, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and of course the HUGE shift away from smoking.

  5. Dan

    I like that the milk is just called milk, nothing about it being 2%, 1%, or skim.

    I’m sure it was whole milk, probably from grass-fed cows.

  6. Jared

    Least its better then school lunches I was offered of, pizza, nachos, chicken nuggets, mac n cheese with dinner rolls, etc etc. Oh, dont forget the fat free regular or chocolate milk to make it “healthy”

  7. Nowhereman

    That looks rather… yummy. I might try that recipe sometime, scaled down, of course, and sans the flour. Of course that ham wasn’t made from a pig that had been pumped up with excess hormones, antibiotics, and was likely fed better than most pigs are today.

    Thanks for sharing this, Tom. I’m going to have to look through that archive to see what other gems there are in it. This is just another sad reminder of how far our government has fallen in it’s misguided quest to protect us from ourselves, even though in this case we did not need to be protected.

    Let me know what you find in those archives. Nothing like the food pyramid, I’ll bet.

  8. Osama

    I do indeed find fat more satiating. Although government bureaucracy can be sticky, you don’t have to follow the FDA guidelines thankfully. However, I think the FDA guidelines should put more emphasis on saturated fat and less on grains because people naturally follow authority. I do think government should get involved in some things except food. As long as there is information on the various kinds of foods, it’s the individual’s fault if they get sick or develop chronic health problems as a result of making poor choices.

  9. Amy

    Thanks for letting us know about the exhibit. I’ll check it out and let you know what I think of it.

  10. damaged justice

    On another one of those darn low-carb forums I just can’t make myself stay away from, there was a thread about the “Food Plate” replacing the pyramid, where at one point someone complained, “Why do people always have to turn this into a political issue?” Here’s a hint: IT IS INHERENTLY A POLITICAL ISSUE. The ones who made it a political issue to begin with were the politicians, and their enablers, the Mrs. Grundy voters. Then again, I’m one of those simple-minded idiots who, instead of whining about how much your poor choices are costing me, and forcing you to make better ones, I’d prefer you just stop forcing me to pay for your choices.

    Amen to that.

  11. Mike

    I would have totally eaten that for school lunch!!

    I read an article touting the new “food plate” a few days ago. I have seen such non-information as this is, it tells me nothing useful about food or how our body works. Please don’t tell me that somebody makes $200,000 a year to come up with this. What kind of screaming would we get if I were president and my wife started advocating a Paleo diet?

    I’m pretty sure the grain lobby would go nuts.

  12. Liz

    Regarding the life expectancy issue: infant mortality rates have declined by 85% since the 40’s. This alone raises the current life expectancy rate substantially, since adding zeros obviously reduces the average.

    People often make the argument that we are living longer, but from the numbers I’ve seen, the actual number of people who live to be 60+ are pretty close to what they were many years ago. Considering all of the advancements we have made (probably should put that in quotation marks), that’s not so good.

    Even 200 years ago, if you made it to age 30, your chances of living to be old were pretty good. Look how many of The Founders lived into their 80s or 90s.

  13. Pat

    They had a food circle as well ( in the kitchen section. I like the 7 groups, no emphasis on portion size, grains were group 6 and fats were group 7. Nothing about low-fat milk in Dairy (group 4) or lean meats (group 5). Plus anything you want once you have eaten something from the 7 groups. And the illustrations are all of unprocessed or slightly processed foods. Real food!

  14. Andrea

    The ratio of fat to flour looks to me like the flour is used primarily as a thickening agent, to make a good roux. You add milk to that to make white gravy – I suspect that whole step was used to make the ham stick together.

    I’m not a fan of bread, but I do love my roux! If you wanna make it gluten free, you could use corn starch, I suppose. Coconut flour doesn’t work very well, sadly. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a good carb-free substitute that will make a good roux. Any thoughts?

    I tried some low-carb thickener once and didn’t care for it. It just added a cardboard taste to the food.

  15. Annelie/Wildrat

    Even if the tablefat is margarine it most likely was much better than what we got today since margarine was made from tallow (or possibly lard..?) in the beginning. Don’t think they started manipulating vegetable oil and using it for margarine until much later…

  16. Allison

    To Andrea: Depending on what you are making sauce for, I’ve discovered that creamed coconut or pureed cauliflower work well for thickening.

  17. John Newlin

    You should bring the recipe to your kids’ school and see if they will make it. It would at least be humorous to see the reactions of the kitchen staff. Please film it 🙂

    I’ll call you from prison and let you know the results.

  18. C

    And nowadays the schools serve hot dogs in white buns with canned fruit soaked in high fructose corn syrup and skim chocolate milk, taking 3 healthy things (meat, fruit, and milk) and making them as unhealthy as possible.

  19. Nowhereman

    Pat beat me to the really great find there, and one which I think ought to be reproduced here is the food “wheel” or “circle” with 7 basic groups, none larger or smaller than the other. Furthermore as Pat noted it’s all real, whole food, and butter has it’s own separate group! How awesome is that?

    I also got a kick out of the caption for the image:

    “Some of us might like to reinstate this food guide from World War II because butter has its own food group.”

    Wouldn’t you, too? Drop the margarine and cereals, and it’s perfect! 😀

    Hint: You should do a comparison of this chart to the old Pyramid as well as the new “pie” chart.

  20. Linda

    “What kind of screaming would we get if I were president and my wife started advocating a Paleo diet?”

    Seems to me there are at least two issues that no sitting president or candidate would ever admit to, one being an atheist, the other a LCHF proponent. Can you imagine the uproar either stance would cause?
    And it is a shame that our political leaders can’t be more forthcoming and honest with us, from day one.

    The question is which admission would do the most political damage.

  21. Ed Terry

    Using data from the USDA Food Nutrient Report, SR23, and assuming the table fat was lard, the per serving composition was:
    Protein 13 g
    Carbs 9 g
    Fat 17 g

    That’s 63% fat by calories. Serve that to school kids today, and you’d be brought up on charges.

  22. Adrienne

    It’s been a while since my sons were in school, but even then I could see a shift away from actually cooking in the school cafeterias. Now, everything comes out of a box, bag or can. Most of the food is of the “snack” variety where the students choose on the serving line. The choices that I was witness to indicated that students, even high schoolers, will choose what they prefer, regardless of how unhealthy the food it. Chocolate milk (skim), frito pie, cookies, hot dogs, potato chips. If there was nutritious food offered, it would not get eaten. Some of it was peer pressure–if your peeps were eating the skim choco milk and frito pie, then you would not rock the boat and pick something healthy without suffering ridicule.

  23. Dave, RN

    A quick look shows that there are two types of fats. Cooking fats and table fats. Perhaps table fats are butter and or margarine. Something you would keep on your table?
    Funny thing about the USDA food guidelines. They are required by law to update them once every five years. Meaning that they have to sit down and think of something every five years. Like our dietary needs change by the clock every 5 years. They sure could sure save lot of money by just telling the truth and then leaving it alone!

    Maybe they should have adopted the 1946 guidelines, declared victory, and gone home.

  24. Vanessa F.

    My mom used to make this with dried beef. She called it Chipped Beef on Toast. I think she got it out of the old Betty Crocker cookbook.

  25. ethyl d

    My uncle, who graduated high school in 1944, recently got out his high school year book for me to look through. I found it very interesting that I could not find one photo of a fat student in the whole book. Maybe because the majority of the foods the kids were eating back then were “real” foods instead of facsimiles of food concocted in a lab?

    Yup. And they probably got most of their nutrition advice from their mothers.

  26. Vanessa

    Hate to say it, but I think school lunches get knocked a lot. 2 of my friends bring lunch and one buys lunch. The two that bring their lunch bring cookies, skim milk, low-fat cottage cheese with pineapple, trail mix (and pick out all the M&ms), pb&j sandwiches made with Skippy, “snack bars” that are basically cookies. The friend that buys lunch eats a hamburger or sometimes a slice of pizza. She gives away the tator tots and doesn’t like the milk. If she gets chips, she shares them with ten other kids. It’s not idealy healthy but it’s more so that junk from home.

    Parents can definitely pack garbage for kids’ lunches and often do. What annoys me when the USDA orders schools to serve grains and low-fat foods.

  27. Charles

    Better late… Why is everyone completely and totally ignoring the fact that this is a recipe for a white ham/milk gravy that is to be served over cornbread? You don’t have to go far to find the same thing on many fast food menus, and probably in some of our schools: we call it biscuits and gravy here in the South.

    It’s a lot of fat and protein served over some carbohydrate. Today’s school lunch program would disallow the meal because of all the fat, which means they’d likely be serving even more carbohydrate.

  28. James Birdsall

    Well this brings back memories. I started school in 1950 in Ohio. As far as I was concerned, I loved school lunches. As someone else said, the milk was whole milk, there was lot of butter, the chili was full of meat AND no one that I can remember was the least bit fat. Of course, we walked to school, and as I told my son, it was at least 2 miles in the snow. But last summer I was visiting my home town and my sister and I measured it with her car, 0.6 mile. Sheesh.

    I used MapQuest to calculate that long, long walk to my grade school from our house in Iowa. Same as you, 0.6 miles. When I visited the old neighborhood as an adult, I also noticed the huge hills we rode up on our bikes had all gotten smaller.

  29. Amy

    I finally went to see the exhibit a couple of weeks ago. It was OK for a couple of hours of entertainment, but not much else. It was obviously intended to be more entertaining than educational. The exhibit barely mentioned the change in farm policy in the 70s. I suppose that would have been too boring for the average visitor. 🙂 Instead, there was plenty of text and photos about how food preferences in the white house influence national food trends. Food in the military, wartime rationing, and the school lunch program received quite a bit of attention in the exhibit too.

    I loved the big display of the 1943 food wheel ( The food wheel, the precursor to the USDA food pyramid and food plate, had seven sections. Americans were told to eat foods from each section every day, but with the added advice to “in addition to the basic 7…eat any other foods you want.” I love it–eat any other foods you want! I realize that suggestion is reflective of the wartime rationing and resultant food scarcity when the food wheel was introduced, but it sounds really funny by today’s standards. Oh, and to top it off, butter and (unfortunately!) fortified margarine has its own section on the food wheel.

    Food issues from the last 10-20 years weren’t given attention. For example, I don’t recall anything in the exhibit about GMOs, the national organic program, or agribusiness’ seed patents. Oh, and there was also no mention that the govt pushed low-fat foods and grains on the population since the 70s and caused an explosion in our size and health problems. (Gee, I wonder why! :-))

    Sounds like an exhibit worth missing.

  30. Iva


    After watching Fat Head and while in the process of reading Wheat Belly, I’m in the process of making the switch for my daughter from cafeteria food to home food. I know she’ll feel a lot better and I suspect I might see a change in attitude as well. (She’s been diagnosed with GAD). While diet can’t fix “everything”, it can fix “a heck of a lot!”


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