As anyone trying to avoid gluten or follow a Paleo diet knows, packaged food that caters to specific dietary rules commands a premium price at the supermarket. The modern health food market is largely an upscale one. But when the idea of scientifically-defined healthy eating entered the American consciousness in the late 1800s, it was targeted specifically to poor workers.
Writing in American Quarterly in 1980, historian Harvey Levenstein tells the story of Edward Atkinson, a businessman who wanted to help the working classes “without resort to labor unions, unnatural increases in wages, or other measures which went against the immutable laws of supply and demand.” Working with a chemist who had found American diets overly filled with sugar and other carbohydrates, Atkinson chided American workers for wasting money on small quantities of butter and beef tenderloin. Cheaper sources of fat and protein would let them get more nutrition for their money, he argued.
In 1889, Atkinson joined forces with Mary H. Abel, the author of a guide to nutrition for American housewives, and Ellen Richards, a chemist who had studied the dangers of adulterated foods. Together, they opened an American version of a German “People’s Kitchen” in Boston. The Boston version was to sell good, healthy food while also functioning as a laboratory and a source of education on nutrition for the poor, something reflected in its original name, the Rumford Food Laboratory.
The name quickly changed to the homier “New England Kitchen.” Employees filled pails and cans for workers, charging a price equal to the cost of cooking the same simple foods at home. Starting in 1894, they also provided school lunches across all nine Boston high schools. The founders opened new branches in other Boston neighborhoods and then one in New York, and food reformers spread versions of the kitchens to Chicago and Philadelphia.
Soon, though, it became clear that there was little interest in the public kitchens in many neighborhoods. Black, Jewish, and Italian families were apparently unimpressed with their offerings. Richards ultimately decided that some poor people simply “do not care for clean wholesome food,” while the rest “know how to live cheaper than we can ever feed them.”
It didn’t help that Atkinson’s push to change the eating habits of the poor was coupled with hostility toward unions and higher wages, or that Abel looked at workers’ desire to eat steak or roast beef as “revel[ling] in unwonted luxury.”
By 1897, the New England Kitchen had transformed into a school lunch program and dining place for secretaries, clerks and “college girls.” The organizers shifted their approach to teaching more educated home cooks a “scientific” approach to food, eventually establishing the American Home Economics Association. Ultimately, they decided, good ideas about nutrition would just have to start with the middle class and trickle down to the poor.