Student Life

Report of the Lunch-Room Investigation Committee, 1908

"The accommodation is adequate if the students would not all insist on eating at once." Students eat lunch in the hallway of Fiske Hall, 1911. Photograph by the Brown brothers, courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

While processing the Alumnae Affairs materials, we came across this report from 1908 concerning an issue that’s still pertinent today: the food at Barnard.  According to the findings of the Lunch-Room Investigation Committee, dining in the College’s early years was an iffy prospect at best. For the amusement of our readers, the Barnard Archives presents excerpts from the:

Report of the Lunch-Room Investigation Committee – May 1, 1908

Your Committee organized on December 16…At the first meeting, the plan of campaign was mapped out as follows: – firstly, to find out precisely what the conditions are at Barnard; secondly, to ascertain in what manner the present management satisfies those conditions; thirdly, to compare the lunch-room with others in the neighborhood, and with those in similar institutions…

Very briefly, the conditions are as follows: – The authorities have assigned the kitchen and two large and two small rooms for lunch-room purposes. These Dean Goetze, the Superintendent of Barnard Buildings and Grounds, allows a caterer, J. Cowen, to use on condition that he take entire care of the said rooms and pay a small percent of the profits…

The accommodation is adequate if the students would not all insist on eating at once.  The rooms could be made more attractive, but even as they are they surpass any of the lunch-rooms in other institutions which have been visited.  They accommodate two hundred easily, but when four hundred try to get lunch between twelve and half past there is much crowding and discomfort.  For this the caterer is not to blame, as his rooms are open from eleven until two.

The next question is what sort of food is demanded, – a “snack” or a regular meal? And as corollary to that, how much money do the girls expect to spend?  Fifty to a hundred buy nothing. The majority spend five cents for soup, cocoa, or dessert to eke out a luncheon brought from home.  Fifty, perhaps more, spend from ten to fifteen cents for a “pick-up” lunch; and only twenty or thirty are willing to spend a quarter for a substantial meal. In short, the great majority want a Dairy Lunch which would supply them with good cocoa, soup, sandwiches, rolls, and simple sweets, for very moderate rates; and a small minority want a more substantial meal for twenty-five cents…

The present caterer attempts to satisfy both demands by the “help-yourself” system.  Each person takes a tray and paper napkin and helps herself to the cold dishes of which an assorted collection of five cent portions is on the counter, and is helped to the hot dishes by a maid.  Of cold things there is a variety of sandwiches, jellies, salads, fruit in season, etc., and of hot, soup, cocoa, tea, and a choice of meats and vegetables.  The most is fifteen or twenty cents.  In theory, this is excellent; yet there is much complaint; so the undergraduates were questioned and the following statistics compiled by Miss Poole.

73 complained of the sandwiches as being hard and dry, with the meat scrappy and fat or all gristle and bone.

10 said the soup was watery and greasy.

26 said the pastry was stale.

20 said the muffins were doughy.

25 said the roast beef was tough.

4 said there were not enough vegetables.

3 said the butter was bad.

1 said the milk was sour.

2 said the salad dressing was rancid.

2 said the eggs were not fresh.

15 said there was an insufficient variety of wholesome food and too much of jellies.

All these statements are true, but never all at once.  The trouble is that there is very little profit in the lunch-room and the caterer cares only for his profit; so that he uses cheap and stale material, and in the kitchen unskilful [sic] labor.  The food seldom is absolutely uneatable, but it is always on the verge of falling from the not-good to the bad.  Your Committee took the complaints to the local manageress, who denied them in toto, but promised to improve and has sincerely tried.  She is, however, not particularly efficient and is of course under Mr. Cowen, who, though bland with promises, is not eager to lose one cent of possible profit, and in other cases both at Columbia and Barnard has not shown other than a mercenary spirit.  Your Committee regards him as a difficult, if not impossible, person to deal with…

The next thing was to find out if other lunch-rooms gave better food for the money.  It was not fair to compare those on business streets, where the total receipts are so much larger and where the service can be used all day.  Nor is the case of a men’s room just the same, because they are less fussy and usually spend more.  Around the college there is no place where a lunch can be had for the money except at Horace Mann or the Commons, which are served by the same caterer.  The charges are the same and the restaurants not materially better, although there is more variety and the food is hotter and fresher, because of the greater consumption.  At Barnard food is “carried over.”

At other institutions – Packer, Erasmus Hall, Pratt – the conditions are about the same.  The Pratt lunch-room is run by the Domestic Science Department, but is not a success.  Polytechnic, Manual Training, and Adelphi are run by a caterer…The [Adelphi] luncheon for $.25 was nicely served and consisted of soup, a choice of meats, a vegetable, tea or cocoa, and dessert.  The food was distinctly better than at Barnard.  The other room, where the students bring their lunches, is inferior, – perhaps because of the number of children.  On the whole the situation at Adelphi is similar to that at Barnard and somewhat better solved.  This is because the caterer is more liberal…

We would urge the Alumnae to petition the removal of the present caterer.  We think we could not do worse, and that a new man would for a time at least do better.

Respectfully submitted,
Charlotte E. Morgan,

This report can be found in full in the Alumnae Affairs Records, Barnard Archives