Branding Bran: School Breakfasts as a Recipe for Healthy Children

Kristen Ann Ehrenberger's picture

A What is a Recipe? contribution by A. R. Ruis (Department of Medical History and Bioethics, University of Wisconsin--Madison)

When cities around the world began to implement school meal programs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the central challenge was to deliver maximal nutritive value at minimal expense. Indeed, optimizing nutritional benefits and financial costs had long been a defining feature of institutional diets, from prisons and workhouses to hospitals and militaries. Institutional recipes both reflected and shaped the relationships among various dietetic concepts, including the nutritive value of foods, the responsibilities of the state and the individual for ensuring proper nourishment, the purpose of eating, and even the definition of food itself. Thus by reading a recipe we can read important facets of the cultures that produced, promoted, and resisted it.

A Recipe for School Breakfast

The following recipe for breakfast to be served in the schools of Bradford, England, was composed by Dr. Ralph Crowley, Director of Medical Inspection, and Marian Cuff, Superintendent of Domestic Science, around 1908. Passage of the Education (Provision of Meals) Act of 1906 had empowered local authorities to sell meals to schoolchildren whose parents were able to pay for them and to provide free meals to poor children or to children who required supplemental nourishment.[1]

There are a few things that are immediately apparent about this recipe: the main feature is oatmeal porridge, the very archetype of institutional food; like modern nutrition labels, the recipe lists the various nutritive values (protein, fat, and calories) contained in the recommended serving sizes that comprise the meal; the cost per serving is listed; and perhaps most notably, there are no instructions for actually preparing the oatmeal. Indeed, the figure above was referred to not as a recipe, but as a menu―the preparation instructions were published separately. The menu, however, is simply a different kind of recipe: a recipe for improving public health and social welfare, and in many respects this menu is far more revealing than the instructions for preparing oatmeal porridge.

“Why Youth Craves Oats”

When Samuel Johnson composed his Dictionary of the English Language in the late 18th century, he defined oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”[2] Once thought suitable only for animals, oatmeal (and to some extent other cereals) became the epitome of the healthful breakfast for children by the early 20th century, due in part to aggressive advertising campaigns by oatmeal manufacturers and in part to nutrition experts who extolled the virtues of foods such as oatmeal for growing children. 

The advertisement below, disseminated by the Quaker Oats Company in 1911, informs readers that “it is the growing child who most delights in oatmeal. Nature then cries for the utmost in body-building, brain-building food.”

If this linkage between the appetite and the nutritive needs of the growing child seems hyperbolic, it is, and yet nutrition experts were quick to point out the many benefits of oatmeal. Frederick Pavy, in his 1881 Treatise on Food and Dietetics, wrote that “oats form an important and valuable article of food.” He then quoted William Cullen, who drew a connection between oatmeal consumption and health by referencing the physical superiority of the oatmeal-eating Scots, “as healthy and as vigorous a race of men as any in Europe.”[3] At a time when stature was a sign of health, this was a powerful statement about the nutritive properties of oatmeal.

Aggressive advertising and the claims of nutrition experts notwithstanding, oatmeal retained for many an association with animal feed. When a New York City school sent each student home with a sack of oatmeal in the early 20th century, this tension was evidenced across generations as well. The oatmeal “was supposed to make you big and strong. You ate it for breakfast,” wrote Leonard Covello, an Italian immigrant who grew up in East Harlem. “My father examined the stuff, tested it with his fingers. To him it was the kind of bran that was fed to pigs in Avigliano. ‘What kind of school is this?’ he shouted. ‘They give us the food of animals to eat and send it home with our children!’”[4]

Yet the idea that oatmeal “makes kids husky,” as claimed in an advertisement for National Oats from 1920, was a powerful message at a time when concern about widespread malnourishment among children was high.

A Recipe for Health and Welfare

Oatmeal porridge, one of the most commonly served dishes in the school breakfast programs of Britain and the United States in the early 20th century, was more than a cheap way to provide sustenance to hungry children. If we return to the recipe with which we began, a modern reader may notice the preponderance of starchy or fatty ingredients and the absence of vegetables or fruit. It is not a balanced meal, nor would it have been considered so in 1908. It is, rather, a meal with a very specific purpose: to provide large amounts of calories, protein, and fat at very low cost to a population of children among whom malnutrition and varying degrees of food insecurity were common.[5]

The 600 calories this meal provided was a third of an older child’s daily requirement, and somewhat more than that for a younger child. The protein and fat provided similar proportions of schoolchildren’s nutritional needs. And yet the association of oatmeal with animal feed is an important context for understanding this meal. The parallel between feeding oats to horses that they might better pull the plough and feeding oatmeal to children that they might better recite their lessons was not lost―though many commentators noted that the care and feeding of animals was both better studied and better financed than the care and feeding of children. As late as 1942, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was supervising 363 research projects on animal nutrition and only 51 on human nutrition.[6] The breakfast of oatmeal porridge, treacle (i.e., molasses), milk, bread, and margarine was carefully constructed to yield maximal nutritive value at minimal cost, though at the expense of providing a meal with other gastronomic qualities, such as balance, diverse flavors and textures, or appealing colors. The food was monochromatic, warm, and plentiful―and it may have been, for many children, a critical health and welfare intervention.


[1] The recipe is printed in Louise Stevens Bryant, School Feeding: Its History and Practice at Home and Abroad (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1913), 254.

[2] Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 6th Ed. (London: A. Millar, 1785).

[3] F. W. Pavy, A Treatise on Food and Dietetics Physiologically and Therapeutically Considered, 2nd Ed. (New York: William Wood, 1881), 158. Cullen was, of course, Scottish.

[4] Leonard Covello and Guido D’Agostino, The Heart Is the Teacher (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958), 24–25.

[5] On the history of malnutrition in this period, see Madeleine Mayhew, “The 1930s Nutrition Controversy,” Journal of Contemporary History 23, no. 3 (1988): 445–464; A. R. Ruis, “‘Children with Half-Starved Bodies’ and the Assessment of Malnutrition in the United States, 1890–1950,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 87, no. 3 (2013): 380–408.

[6] M. L. Wilson, “Nutritional Science and Agricultural Policy,” Journal of Farm Economics 24, no. 1 (1942): 189.