My Forty Years Scribblin's
Personal Memories
The School Lunch Program

This piece was written in 1960s and published in The Missoulian newspaper in the 1960s as well as the Seeley Swan Pathfinder in 1988. Mildred provides a glimpse into her job as a school cook.

Along in the 1920s teachers in some frigid little country schools saw the need of a hot dish at noon and made soup, stew, or maybe cocoa during the worst of the winter weather. Milk or vegetables might be solicited from the parents but if these were not forthcoming the teacher often as not would provide them from her own small salary. I, for one, have not forgotten how wonderful it was sitting with half frozen feet propped up around the heating stove and have something hot to get our frozen bread and butter down with—bread and butter frozen in our lunch pails in the cloak room. Bless those teachers! Those good souls didn't know it but they were sowing the seed that developed into our modern school lunch program.

Parents of that generation felt that anything that filled a youngster's tummy would keep his body in motion; never mind his brain. "Proper diet" was just a phrase that somebody dug up. Few people understood it and life was too complicated to worry about it. The first positive step that I saw was hot soup delivered to school in a gallon syrup pail requested by a progressive mother and served to her children while the others looked on wishfully. The "caterer" received a nickel for a bowl of soup and another nickel for a sandwich.

School buses of the 1930s are pictured here in this 1936 photo. Courtesy Mansfield Library.A few years passed and we found ourselves in the midst of the Great Depression. My own school-age kids came home telling me, "We can have a bowl of soup at school if we have three pennies.

"But we have to take our own sandwich," one added.

I could scarcely believe it. But upon inquiring I learned that a makeshift kitchen had been put together and something called the WPA was paying a cook to provide hot soup for the children. At that time pennies still counted as money but I had three girls in school and it wasn't always easy to find nine extra cents around our house. When I could, I sent the pennies along with their sandwiches and my kids enjoyed a hot lunch without having to run home, swallow their food whole and run back to get to school on time.

In time, I was informed, "We don't have to take a sandwich anymore, we can have enough at school."

And finally: "Teacher said that poor kids didn't have to pay for their lunch."

Well, there was hardly any doubt about their being poor kids and most of the families that we knew were in the same predicament. But I was saturated with a condition called pride so if I couldn't scare up the pennies they carried their sustenance in a paper bag. Although I didn't realize it then, they were embarrassed at not having money to pay for their lunches and having to eat their home grown food. The sad part as I saw it was that some families didn't have a loaf of bread to make a lunch.

Another year or two and those who were able to pay were paying five cents and this was, to some kids, their main meal of the day. By the time I applied for and got the cooking job the students were paying seven cents for what was termed a balanced meal. Nutrition had raised its drowsy head and people were beginning to take notice. The PTA shouldered part of the load by paying my wages but the farmers were now resorting to produce to pay for their children's meals. The government was subsidizing and from the amount of buffalo I cooked I wondered that the entire herd wasn't wiped out.

My first paying job—glory be! I would get $50 every month; through the school term, that is, so I could give "Granma" $20 for trying to keep track of my two preschoolers and she would have some money too.

By now our enrollment numbered around one hundred and seventy students and teachers and I was supposed to get volunteer help from the mothers. Some days the busy farm women with a bundle of chores to do would get around by 9:30 or 10:00 o'clock while those in town with nary a chick nor a pig to feed wouldn't get on the job until the primary grades were fed and shooed out the door.

The old building was built like a barn and twice as cold. A big old wood stove from a logging camp held prominence at the business end of the room and a big old wood heater stood at the other. Together they devoured half a rick of wood each morning to get them steamed up enough to put out any heat. I was obliged to work in my coat and overshoes for an hour or so on cold winter mornings until the frost went out. The floor and benches were bare but the tables, fifteen to eighteen feet long were covered with linoleum, which someone had endeavored to glue down with honey. The lunchroom was used for all community functions that required refreshments so when it was warm the honey ran through the cracks and down the sides of the homemade tables and dripped into the Sunday-go-to meetin' laps of the gentlemen and their ladies. In due time it sugared and pulled away from the wood allowing the linoleum to curl up from the cold. The resourceful kids scratched out the granules and savored the sweetness until it was pretty well used up.

The building had been moved and as yet, had no water supply. My first chore after building the fires every morning was to carry eighteen buckets, nine trips, out of the High School store room for the necessary cooking and dish washing. Then, just before serving time, I went for four more pails so there would be fresh water for lunch. Getting out that High School door, down ten feet of walkway and into the lunchroom was a feat that I never did quite master without incident. At least one of those doors was bound to slam shut on one of those buckets and I could always count on having one wet foot. By the second year the PTA was thoughtful enough to hire a couple of boys to carry the water and chop my wood and I felt that I must have just entered Heaven.

My cooking utensils were old Army kettles and old logging camp baking pans, the latter for breads, cakes, cookies or whatever. By the time I got the stove hot enough to boil ten or twelve gallons of soup I baked with the oven door wide open, turning the product as often as necessary. I guess it came out all right because some of the girls got wise and would slip in after all the others had gone and ask to scrape the pans for the crumbs.

I had no electric mixer but I had a big enameled kettle, a strong right arm and an Army mixing spoon. Sugar rationing was in effect but when I could save or finagle enough sugar or molasses I mixed eight recipes of devil's food cake or ginger bread, nine if the attendance was good, four batches of cookies and gobs of cinnamon rolls. Four hundred dinner rolls lasted for two meals and kept me there until after 5 o'clock. Some of my "customers" were really depression era kids and all were allowed to come back for seconds. My groceries were largely government surplus and I lay awake nights dreaming up ways to use up hundred pound sacks of corn meal, oatmeal, whole wheat flour—and powdered milk that had sat on the store room shelves and turned to cement. We also had twenty five pound boxes of dried peaches and prunes and I swear it, raisins to the rafters! The peaches turned black when cooked and although they didn't taste too bad they looked so horrible the only way that I could get them down those kids was to mash them and make jam.

Most of the kids were pretty good in the kitchen. One day two little bosom friends got into a scrap at the serving counter.

"Them ain't muffins," one said looking disappointed.

"Are too."

"Are not."

"Are too; She said they was."

"I don't care. Muffins is round and they is square!"

One gave a shove with her elbow and the other shoved back.

To keep the peace I hurried to explain that it was oatmeal muffin dough but that we had no muffin tins therefore they were baked in the big pans and cut in serving size pieces. They gave each other dirty looks and each went away with a big square muffin on her plate.

And then there was a boy. A nice looking kid about twelve years old and absolutely abominable. If he didn't make a snide remark he would look over the food and leave. Or he might just pick up a plate, walk around the table and come back and dump it in the garbage can. Then he would give me a defiant look and dust off his hands as if they were soiled. How I longed to haul that kid over the counter and mop up the kitchen floor with him. But of course I didn't. I had to content myself with calling him names; silently and privately of course. The meanest thing I could think of to call him was "Fliesinmysoup".

The combination of rationing and a shortage of money served to generate appetite failure so when I suspected that the kids were getting as sated with buffalo meat as I was I would write notes to a dozen or so farm women to solicit a chicken. If I could get a dozen or so old stewing hens we could have chicken and noodles. I don't remember ever having been turned down. The chickies came via school bus minus heads and feathers and the rest was up to me. After lunch I would dress out the dozen old biddies, cook and bone them the next day and on the third day we would have a feast.

Canned fruit on a budget like ours was a no-no. But sometimes we got government surplus grapefruit juice and orange juice concentrate. Then I would go snooping around the stores to find something to add color and flavor so I could improvise a Jello dessert. The kids loved it. Their mothers marveled that I could serve their children Jello when they couldn't buy it in the stores. But the eagle eye of the PTA caught it on the grocery slips and called me on the carpet for buying such frivolous items as Koolaid and unflavored gelatin.

Winter began to wane and we were all hungry for something green. My elderly helper offered some chives from her yard and it sounded like a breath of spring. She brought a nice bundle of the fresh onion-like spears and we cut them up in the next day's potato salad. The dish always went over big and was acceptable to the government inspector as a Friday meatless meal. But something was wrong. The kids were bringing it back and dumping it in the garbage can. One of my ladies came back from wiping tables and said in an undertone, "There's your trouble." I looked where she pointed. Good old "Fliesinmysoup." He had stationed himself out of sight behind the brace at the end of the center table, there he warned each one as they passed by, "Don't eat that stuff—it's got grass in it!"

The past two months had gone smoothly and peacefully. Unaccountably there had been no unruly boy to plague me. I had asked for a raise and gotten it, although there was some grumbling, "for cooking one meal a day?" But now the school district had taken over the program and they gave me the $75 per month; probably because no one else wanted that particular job.

On that last morning—one more meal to go, a familiar face looked in the open window and yelped, "What's for lunch?"

It stopped me in my tracks. Here he was back to bedevil me one more time.

"Fliesinmysoup!" I groaned aloud.

"What kind of soup?" He peered at me through the screen.

He didn't stop long enough to hear my answer "baked beans." He ran away looking for something else to get into, I supposed. But what was that on his face? A great big grin! It was the first time I had seen him that way. All at once I had a flash of understanding; he was just too much boy for the size of his skin!

The sun was golden, the air was a tingle with the songs of birds and the humming of bees. Today for once, this boy and I were in total agreement. We had both had enough of this business of school and were happy that the term was at an end. The outdoors had so much more to offer.