Week-long Meat Boycott Squeezed An Already-Tight School Lunch Budget In 1973

Week-long Meat Boycott Squeezed An Already-Tight School Lunch Budget In 1973

Students who attend class in Cheshire do so expecting to receive a quality education and some food.

Every child and teen who walks through the doors of a Cheshire public school is doing so with the knowledge that they won’t just have their minds fed, but their bodies as well. After all, numerous studies over the years have proven the connection between a full stomach and an active brain. If you make sure students are adhering to a healthy diet, their minds are that much more capable of absorbing and processing knowledge.

It’s no wonder then that school meals always seem to pop up as a topic of conversation. That was certainly true during the pandemic, when everything went remote and the Cheshire School District had to figure out a safe way to deliver meals to students who were going to be attending classes online for the foreseeable future. When classes returned, federal aid was made available to ensure that everyone was receiving their breakfast and/or lunch for free, unless they chose to bring their own meals from home.

But as The Herald reported at the end of last year, the federal money used to offer those meals ran out, and that meant pay-as-you-go meal plans returned … or at least they were scheduled to. As it turns out, parents and students only had to pay for a short period of time, as legislators in Hartford stepped up to ensure that money is there for the free meal program through the end of the school year.

What happens next year and beyond is anyone’s guess.

Back in 1973, school meals were also in the news, although for slightly different reasons. In March of that year, the Cheshire School District decided to join a nationwide protest, one spawned primarily over concerns about the rapidly-rising costs of meat products, though some used the occasion to bring attention to what they believed were improper meat processing methods. Cheshire, at the urging of students, decided to take meat completely off the menu at every school, at least for one week, as an article in the April 5, 1973 edition explained:

The school hot lunch program went meatless this week in a last-minute switch taken after some Cheshire High School students (approached) Mrs. Elgil Wium, director of the program, to support the nation-wide week-long meat boycott.

“I had thought about it,” said Mrs. Wium, “and when I talked to some high school students about it they said, ‘Go ahead.’ So we went ahead with it.”

Youngsters taking the hot lunch program at the town’s seven schools weren’t short-changed on nutrition, however, Mrs. Wium said. Each lunch met the requirements set forth by the national government for such hot lunch programs.

The article went on to explain that, despite the meatless menu, students were still offered a wide variety of options, such as fish sticks, grilled cheese sandwiches, tuna rolls, and several chicken-based items. And for those who wanted to still feel like they were getting their red-meat fix, meatless Sloppy Joe sandwiches were, according to the article, a very popular item.

The boycott brought into focus the economic realities facing the school district, especially when it came to ensuring that students had the food they needed. As Wium explained, it took a lot of maneuvering on her part to keep the lunches hot and the budget under control:

With approximately 2,000 meals to serve every day, Mrs. Wium and her staff have been looking for ways to stretch the school food dollar.

“The pinch is not pinching as hard as it could because I’ve been buying ahead,” said Mrs. Wium, who added that the price for fish, cheese, and even the very popular pizza have been edging steadily upward.

The price of fish is up, but Mrs. Wium bought enough for the rest of the year at the September price of 54 cents per pound. Alongside the fish in the various school freezers are the cartons of pizzas bought up when the supplier warned Mrs. Wium of a coming price hike.

As many may recall, either from having read about the era or lived through it, the 1970s were marked by record-high inflation and a struggling economy. Pictures of long lines of cars waiting to fill up at gas stations  are synonymous with the decade. Adjusting to that reality was something with which everyone had to deal, including the local school district, and Wium understood that things were likely to get worse before they got better:

For the past two months meat prices have increased every week. Using hamburger as an example, Mrs. Wium said it had cost 73 cents per pound in bulk, 75 cents per pound for patties in September. In March, the prices had risen to 78 cents per pound for bulk packages, and 79 cents per pound for patties.

One way to cut expenses is to waste nothing, Mrs. Wium said.

“Economy at all times. There is very little waste in the school kitchens. What meat is left over is sliced or chopped for use in another way,” said Mrs. Wium. “Sometimes we freeze it to use at another time.”

The skyrocketing costs were being driven by elements outside of Cheshire, but one resident, William Myers, believed that the community had at least a small hand in helping create the financial mess in which the state and country found itself. In a letter to the editor published on April 5, Myers surmised that those who were complaining about rising food costs were ignoring the real issue:

I would expect loud shouts of joy and huzzas at every increase in the price of food. That’s what seems to happen when the price of (running the) government in town (goes up), so why not food? For years our town commissions and town officials have been busily engaged in making Cheshire about as expensive a town as possible, but no one ever objects.

At earlier town meetings and now at hearings and referendums, few attend to voice an opinion or object against anything. We swallow everything that is proposed no matter how untried of untested. We have to have a professional to do everything for us, or else a survey by a stranger telling us about some trouble we didn’t even know we had, and how it can be solved.

As Myers continued, he admitted that the rising food costs at the schools and local grocery stores were impacted by the state of the nation, but that didn’t absolve Cheshire:

Think of the thousands of eggs that used to be produced in Cheshire; the thousands of gallons of milk that left town every day; the many truck loads of vegetables grown in our soil; and countless other food products that no longer grow here. The way of the farmer is not easy, and with shortsighted zoning and the rest, farms and farmers are doing the disappearing act.

It’s somewhat astonishing to see how similar the arguments of 1973 mimic at times the debates we have today. Government excess, lack of community food production, the need to “buy local,” all have a familiar ring to them today.

The inflation crunch of the early 1970s didn’t truly abate until the early part of the 1980s. Will our current bout with rising inflation and soaring prices last that long? Or will we find a way out of these struggles at a quicker pace?

Only time will tell. Until then, “Waste not, want not” is probably a good motto by which to live.


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