Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Studies


Scott R Nelson


The history of organized feeding programs in American workplaces and schools reveals a complex tale of coordinated efforts toward the goal of altering individual eating habits. A secondary benefit of this process accrues when that individual spreads the influence of new ideas to others. Working both in concert and isolation, various interests including both individuals and organizations, have attempted to alter the eating habits of their subjects toward the goals of increased Americanization, socialization, or productivity. their efforts have shaped the role of lunch in modern American food ideology. This dissertation examines that process, its major players, and effects beginning in the late nineteenth through the early twenty-first centuries.;Late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century progressives drove the opening wedge, introducing debate about the relationship between nutrition and industrial or educational efficiency. During World War II, experts in business and government transformed lunch from a matter of private concern to one of military necessity. After the war, issues over employee lunch remained contested terrain in many union-management conflicts. Also during the post-war era, the national defense character of the school lunch faded while educators, legislators, dieticians, and others who had become enamored with statistics, used the school lunch as a tool to "even up the starting line" in equal opportunity programs. Such experiments on young Americans had both positive and negative outcomes ranging from the institutionalization of the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program to the sometimes troublesome effects caused by federal distribution of excess agricultural commodities among school cafeterias. Finally, while the twentieth century was one of significant changes in women's roles both inside and outside the home, ideals of motherhood proved to be less elastic and amenable to shifting work and family patterns. The packed lunch, as a public demonstration of maternal commitment, also became the material site of conflict and contestation as to the very nature of motherhood.;Ultimately, Americans' lunch habits are shaped by a combination of forces including environmental constraints and the conflict generated from the encounter among home, workplace, school, and marketplace. Despite this legacy from the battle over lunch, individuals retain the responsibility and accountability for the personal food choices they make.



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