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  • School Milk in Britain, 1900–1934
  • Peter Atkins (bio)

It seems to be generally accepted that school meals played a small but important role in the creation of conceptual and practical space for the first green shoots of the modern welfare state, and that their provision, no matter how modest at the outset, therefore represented a major departure in the history of social policy.1 As Bentley Gilbert notes: "The passage of the Education (Provision of Meals) Act of 1906, and the Education (Administrative Provisions) Act of 1907, establishing medical inspection in State schools, marked the beginning of the construction of the welfare state. For the historian, feeding was the more important measure, not because it was wider in scope or more beneficial, but simply because it occurred first."2 Thus the Liberal party's reforming administration of 1906–14 began with legislation on free school meals and school medical inspection.3 According to Pat Thane, this "was the first extension from the field of schooling into that of welfare of the principle that a publicly financed benefit could be granted to those in need, free both of charge and of the disabilities associated with the Poor Law," and Charles Webster suggests that "the foundations were laid for the principle of providing publicly funded welfare benefits for an entire class of recipient without the imposition of the kind of limitations traditionally imposed under the Poor Law."4 In more general terms, Ulla Gustafsson has asserted that school meals "inform our understanding of the relationship between the state, the family and children."5 These claims of a foundational role for school feeding in the emerging governance of the social have been pursued in the literature in two main directions.

First, there has been work on feeding as a means of addressing social ills, such as the widespread child malnutrition that constrained the [End Page 395] cognitive skills of pupils. This discourse is centered on the medicinal value of solid food, milk, and cod liver oil. Authors in this tradition often begin with the debate about the bodily strength and fitness of the nation following the debacle of the Boer War, when so many potential recruits were shown to be physically unfit for action.6 Three major official inquiries in the years 1903–6 debated the causal significance of poverty but also put stress on malnutrition and undernutrition as major issues.7 This attention to "physical deterioration" at the "macro-scale" suggested a need for intervention by the state, and one of the most important recommendations to emerge from the 1905 Inter-Departmental Committee on Medical Inspection and Feeding of Children Attending Public Elementary Schools was that LEAs (Local Education Authorities) should be enabled to provide meals in the school setting.8 The Education (Provision of Meals) Act of 1906 that followed, together with revised and extended Acts in 1914 and 1921, empowered LEAs to plan a feeding regime, especially for children who were "unable by reason of lack of food to take full advantage of the education provided for them."9 No advice was given at this stage on the amount or type of food to be provided and local responses were varied according to micropolitical context.10 Bernard Harris's account of "the health of the schoolchild" is especially interesting because he looks in detail at the school medical service and traces the implementation and consequences of school feeding policies.11 In his view, school meals represented "a major extension of public welfare provision," although in some areas "the number of children who were reported as being malnourished often bore little relationship to the number being fed."12

Second, there is a growing theoretically informed literature on the use of school meals as means of disciplining the behavior, as well as the diet, of working-class children. Behind this is Michel Foucault's attempt to ground the political in the everyday and to explore the dispersed nature of power in settings such as schools, prisons, and hospitals. Gustafsson has claimed by extension that school meals were in effect a form of embodied discipline and that the orderly setting in which they were served was a template for children's minds...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1528-4190
Print ISSN
0898-0306
Pages
pp. 395-427
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-02
Open Access
No
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