Sack lunches and lunch ladies

by Vivian Lawson Hogue

One wouldn’t think that school lunch programs would become or need to be political issues, but it is true. Such programs have been around since the 1890s, with an emphasis on “hot lunches.” Why “hot” was important is a mystery. Most young people in those days of little refrigeration were used to eating leftover food that had sat out on the table until the next meal or snack of the day.

Many county residents can recall their 1950s school lunches either because they were plentiful or delicious. During the Conway Elementary School lunch hours, we were walked to the cafeteria where our noses and hungry bellies would have led us anyway.

Students had several options for lunch. With 45 minutes for lunch and living four blocks from home, I sometimes chose to walk home for lunch. I bought a school lunch occasionally for a quarter if mother had one. A carton of milk was another two cents, and chocolate milk was five cents. My skinny, youngest brother probably fared better than I as he had good bartering and trading abilities.

The school lunch program had been achieved a few years earlier through the efforts of several local women. Meals were served on plastic trays with stainless steel utensils. My husband, raised in Mount Vernon, recalls metal trays and metal utensils with “U. S. Navy” embossed on them.

Because our society was not yet raised on fast food, students enjoyed fresh vegetables, protein-filled main dishes, homemade desserts and rolls. During the long lunch and recess, we ran or played off the calories. Outdoors after school, home activities and sensible meals kept most students slim.

I also enjoyed my sack lunches, which I took in small, re-used brown sacks. These might include sandwiches with fillings of cheese, scrambled or fried eggs, cottage cheese with black olives, bologna or peanut butter mixed with honey. The lunches were placed on a table at the back of the classroom or in the cloak room on a shelf. Some of those tasted much better than they smelled.

In the 1980s I was to find myself working in school cafeterias for supplementary income. I emptied large plastic sleeves of ground pork or beef into mixers before adding seasonings, then after cooking, it was combined with rice or macaroni with cheese or tomatoes. We “lunch ladies” served much the same fare as I had enjoyed in first grade, prepared with the same love for the kids. We made vegetables, rolls and desserts, too, although the price had risen to 75 cents. We watched as some children begged for rolls or other foods from others, and we said not a word, as we knew they were hungry. Those from whom they received did not refuse or make fun of them.

A local news item from 1974 revealed the Conway Public Schools’ $14,000 deficit in its school lunch fund had been reduced to $10,000. It was predicted to be in the black the next spring. There were four cafeterias from which eight cooks had been released to save money.

Lunches would remain at 50 cents for secondary students and teachers and 40 cents for elementary. No changes would be made in food offerings. The supervisor said, “We are serving more cakes instead of fruit to cut costs.” While there are those today who might gasp at that thought, I would wager there are still those who remember those cakes with fondness.


A native of Conway, Vivian Lawson Hogue graduated from the University of Central Arkansas with a degree in art education. A retired teacher, she worked in the Conway School District for 23 years. She is editor of the Faulkner County Historical Society’s semi-annual publication, “Faulkner Facts and Fiddlings.” She can be reached at [email protected].