I grew up on school cafeteria lunches. For just 25 cents, we got a hot entrée like so-so creole macaroni, Spanish rice or mac and cheese, brown bread and butter, a forgettable veggie, a yummy, to-this-day-coveted shortbread cookie, and a carton of milk.
That the cookie was the best part of lunch says a lot. But 25 cents is 25 cents, an amazing bargain by today’s standards. At least our bellies were full, and we were not tempted by sugary soft drinks or high caloric snacks from vending machines.
It was not a perfect world by any means; there were no discussions about good nutrition either at home or at school. But there was also no “obesity epidemic,” rampant junk food advertising, or a discernible impact on the environment from the vast amounts of packaging waste produced by our global fast food culture. And it simply never occurred to us that we had the right to a healthy school lunch.
Because it was a constant challenge making school lunches for her two sons every single morning, Toronto-based writer and editor Andrea Curtis became curious about what kids in other countries were eating. In Canada, 90% of kids bring a home-packed lunch and they’re only given about 10 minutes to eat it! There’s no special lunchroom, so they eat in a crowded gymnasium or at their desks. Even when she packed healthy food her sons really liked, often they didn’t have enough time to finish everything.
In What’s for Lunch?: How Schoolchildren Eat Around the World (Red Deer Press, 2012), Andrea serves up a fascinating smorgasbord of typical school lunches from 13 different countries. Peering into the lunch trays, bags, bowls and cups of kids from places like Japan, France, Mexico, Brazil, Russia, China and Peru reveals that it’s always about more than just the food itself.
No matter where we live or what we eat, our food is part of a huge, complex global system, with issues connecting and affecting us all, everything from climate change, social justice, inequalities and the plight of farmers to world hunger and diet-related illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.
Kids will enjoy seeing the interesting variety of foods, read about how and where they’re eaten, and noting how they’re similar and different from other kids around the world. They’ll see that for some children school lunch is the only nutritious meal of the day, while others may have adequate food but it’s not especially healthy. It will definitely make them think about food in ways they never have before.
Students in Nantes, France, for example, eat a complete four course meal made from scratch by trained chefs using fresh ingredients. They are given 45 minutes for lunch, use real silverware, and are encouraged to eat slowly and savor their meal, which is served on heated ceramic plates. They also take taste education classes, yet another way to foster lifelong food appreciation.
By stark contrast, students in a Kandahar, Afghanistan, village school, where there is no safe drinking water or proper toilet facilities, eat a packet of high-energy biscuits provided by the World Food Programme. These fortified biscuits serve as breakfast and lunch, and will be the most nutritious food they have all day.
In an interview at Sweet Potato Chronicles, Ceri Marsh asked Andrea which country’s lunch surprised her the most when she was researching the book.
I was probably most surprised by how unhealthy many school lunches are in the USA. I saw things like Frito pie—a casserole of corn chips, chili and piles and piles of greasy cheese—pepperoni pizza and a choice of strawberry or chocolate milk along with canned fruit (complete with maraschino cherries). That’s changing now as Americans have begun to institute their new healthier school lunch guidelines, but it’s been pretty awful for a while.
On the other hand, I was surprised in a good way by Brazil, where there is a huge amount of poverty and yet the government has made it a priority to ensure all children have a healthy and delicious meal at school with fresh fruit, rice and beans and veggies. They also require school meal providers to source 30 % of their food from small-scale local suppliers—helping support local economies as well as children’s health.
Along with providing an illuminating social, cultural and historical context for the featured lunches, Andrea discusses some of the ways kids are taking an active role in reclaiming school lunches by demanding more nutritious cafeteria options, planting school gardens, and learning to cook healthy meals.
With illustrations by Sophie Casson, color photos by Yvonne Duivenvoorden, and illuminating sidebars about food culture, What’s for Lunch? is a wonderful book for kids and adults to read together because it will inevitably raise important questions and stimulate lively dialogue. In a blog post titled, “Garden Variety Politics,” Andrea says:
I think making food literacy a part of our schools and education system is a key part of how we’re going to reverse the damage of our current food system—the diet-related health issues, the environmental degradation, the fear about food safety and unfair labour practises. Teachers are our most important resource when it comes to making food literacy a part of our children’s school life.
I agree that it’s crucial for kids to learn where their food comes from and how it’s produced, how their diet affects their bodies and the world around them, and that they should have an opportunity to help grow and prepare their own food. What’s for Lunch? shows how a simple school lunch can reflect an entire nation’s values and priorities when it comes to food. I know that it reinforced my belief that in the U.S., making big bucks seems to be more important than maintaining a healthy, safe, and high quality food supply.
More from Andrea in this video:
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WHAT’S FOR LUNCH?: What Schoolchildren Eat Around the World
written by Andrea Curtis
with photographs by Yvonne Duivenvoorden and illustrations by Sophie Casson
published by Red Deer Press, October 2012
Nonfiction for ages 9-12, 40 pp.
Includes Endnote and Glossary
♥ Visit the What’s for Lunch Website for more about Andrea and the book, including a great list of Learning Resources for teachers, students, and anyone interested in global food issues and Ways to Take Action. Follow Andrea’s Blog, where she continues to share info and insights about school lunch around the world and other cool food initiatives, organizations and news.
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“Food literacy,” “food appreciation,” “the power of food.” So important to each and every one of us.
Does your child buy school lunch or does he/she bring a home-packed lunch? Why?
Like Andrea, do you also find it a huge challenge to pack a healthy lunch every day that your child will actually finish?
Does your child’s school still have vending machines stocked with sugary drinks and unhealthy snacks? Does the cafeteria sell chocolate or other flavored milks, french fries and cheese-laden foods like nachos?
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*Spreads from What’s for Lunch? posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2012 Andrea Curtis, photographs © 2012 Yvonne Duivenvoorden, illustrations © 2012 Sophie Casson, published by Red Deer Press. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.