Isabel Hyams begins "Penny Lunch" program

January 1, 1910

On January 1, 1910, Isabel Hyams, an 1888 MIT graduate and a trustee of the Boston Consumptive Hospital, began an experimental “Penny Lunch” program in a Boston elementary school. Other cities across the country had such programs, and it was Hyams’ dream to establish one in her hometown. In 1909, she had written “that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure … underfeeding, particularly among children, leads to anemia and anemia to tuberculosis.”

The program provided nutritious lunches to children who were considered to be anemic. Each lunch cost between one and two cents. Because of her academic studies in public health and experience helping tuberculosis patients, Hyams believed that poor nutrition affected both the body and the mind. She was convinced that children would not succeed in school without good nourishment during the day. Through the introduction of the “Penny Lunch,” Hyams planned to give the children and their parents lessons in sanitation and hygiene as well.

With support from Ellen Richards, Hyams’ chemistry professor and mentor since her days at MIT, the Winthrop Grammar School was chosen as the first site, since the building already had a fully equipped kitchen. The principal and Domestic Science teacher were supportive. The cost of all the food served would be covered by what the students paid. The nutritious lunches were to be prepared in the school by the girls in the cooking classes. The only extra funding needed was for Hyams’ assistant, an expense she paid out of her own pocket. 

Initially, 50 children attending the Winthrop School were offered the lunches. The program proved so successful that eight grammar schools in Boston.  Money was donated in order to outfit kitchens in other schools, and by May of 1910, Hyams and her co-workers were serving lunch to over 2,000 students across the city.

Along with her academic background, Hyams had experience running nutritional, hygiene, and housekeeping programs at the Louisa May Alcott Club, a settlement house, which she co-founded in 1895 with her friend and colleague, Frances Stern. Located in Boston’s teeming South End, the club was financed by Isabel’s brother Godfrey Hyams. Godfrey and his sisters had grown up in one of Boston’s working-class neighborhoods with their immigrant father and native-born mother. Godfrey Hyams had become wealthy from investments in mining and the railroads; when he died in 1927, funds from his estate established the Hyams Foundation, which his sisters Isabel and Sarah managed until their deaths. The foundation still supports many programs for disadvantaged youth in Boston.

Sources: Isabel F. Hyams, “The Improvement of Public Health through Teaching of Hygiene in the Elementary Schools,” paper delivered at the American Public Health Association, Oct. 1909); Ellen H. Richards, The Journal of Home Economics, pp. 648- 653, American Home Economics Association, Dec. 1910, v. 2 no. 6; Emmeline Torrey, “Penny Lunches: How Boston is Trying to Prevent Tuberculosis by Feeding Anemic School Children,” paper delivered at the National Education Conference, July 1910; “Death Takes Miss Isabel Hyams ’88, Ending Work in Health Education,” M.I.T. Tech, Feb. 19, 1932.


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Miss Hyams published three papers with Ellen H. Swallow Richards (1900) after a decade long study of the growth and decay of the alge ossillaria prolifica on Jamaica Pond.

In reply to by Jill Schneiderman

Cool, Jill Schneiderman. I'm just reading a compelling current novel about a woman botanist called The Signature of All Things.


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Jewish Women's Archive. "Isabel Hyams begins "Penny Lunch" program." (Viewed on May 30, 2024) <>.