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Food for Thought

By Susan Graham — February 03, 2010 4 min read
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Mrs. Q is braver than me. She’s vowed to eat school lunch every day for a year. Not only that, she’s using her cell phone to surreptitiously photograph each day’s lunch. She’s sharing it all in her blog, Fed Up . It’s not always pretty.

School lunch has always been sort of a joke, but in 2008 the National School Lunch Program, administered by the Department of Agriculture spent $9.3 billion and fed 30.5 million children each school day and that’s no laughing matter. School lunch is a big deal--enough of deal that we use free and reduced lunch as the primary socioeconomic marker in our schools.

The School Lunch Program dates back to 1947. In addition to providing lunch for the kiddies, it also provided a market for surplus agricultural products that were subsidized by the federal government through the USDA. Subsidized prices for commodities such as flour, corn, peanuts, and dairy products were tied to insuring a sufficient food supply for wartime. I’m sure that there were kids eating free and reduced lunch at my elementary school, but for me and my friends, a hot school lunch was something sort of fancy -- luxury for kids who didn’t lug a lunch box from home. Back in the day, lunch ladies cooked lunch from scratch. They baked cookies using real butter that came as USDA surplus. School lunch looked a lot like the dinner your mom might serve at home.

These days, in most schools, lunch is a heat-and-serve buffet of pre-prepared processed foods -- knock-offs of fast food specialties. Today the subsidized wheat becomes white flour breading on a bar of chicken parts that has first been liquefied and then extruded into “chicken fingers,” fried in corn oil, served with corn syrup based dipping sauce, accompanied by extruded smiley face potato product (also fried in corn oil) and finished off with a “low fat blueberry muffin.” I guess in a culture where the dinner comes from a freezer box or bag on most evenings, one could argue that it still looks a lot like the dinner mom might serve in many homes.

I am fascinated by the pictures of Mrs. Q’s lunch, especially by the little dishes that are labeled FOOD FOR THOUGHT. They got me to thinking about what school lunch might be like in other places. I discovered a BBC post concerning English school lunches that solicited memories of school lunches from around the world. I also found out that Mrs. Q was not alone; people all over were capturing and posting images of their lunch trays. It would appear that concern over school lunch is universal, but there is a huge difference in how cultures address feeding their children during the school day. Reports from Franceand Japan bear little resemblance to US school lunch.

In elementary schools, students are served a meal in the "restaurant scolaire," where furniture, silverware and sound level are just as important as the food itself. High school students -- who have presumably learned how to eat well from years of educational school meals -- may serve themselves in larger cafeterias. Lunch in Japanese schools is part of the curriculum just like math or science. The midday meal is meant to improve student health, but also to "foster correct eating habits and good human relations," according to the Ministry of Education. Schools send home a monthly menu that outlines the nutritional value of each meal, lists the ingredients and discusses the benefits of the foods served, many of which are locally grown and produced.

Look around the average U.S. school cafeteria. Children are lined up to march through a serving line, emerging with a tray of little prepackaged food items, most of which must be eaten with the hands because the little plastic “spork” will break if used for anything sturdier than instant mashed potatoes. They sit in long rows--often in assigned seats---with acoustics that make conversation almost impossible. Talking is discouraged anyway since there is around 20 minutes to get food, eat, and dump leftovers into a huge can.

We started school lunch programs to insure that all children were getting sufficient nutrition, but all of a sudden we seem to have noticed that our children are not well fed, they are simply filled up. Many people are now questioning whether school lunches contribute to the epidemic of childhood obesity. In a culture that is obsessed with appearance and athletics, we’re not just talking about kids who don’t look good in a swimsuit or who won’t make that select soccer team. We’re talking about serious lifelong health issues including diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and sleep disorders, all that represent, if nothing else, a lifetime of expensive medical care.

TV celebrity chef Jamie Oliver took on reforming the English school lunch program with his Feed Me Better campaign because of his conviction that

As well as the frightening rise in obesity, there's a growing number of kids, no matter what shape or size that simply aren't getting fed enough nutrients like iron, calcium and vitamins. It's having a huge effect on their brainpower, behaviour and ability to concentrate and learn at school.

He’s right, and it’s disingenuous for policymakers and pundits here in the US to tut-tut about obesity and couch potato kids when PE and recess are reduced or eliminated and school lunch resembles a Happy Meal want-ta-be. I’m with Mrs. Q. I’m fed up with our children not being well fed. If we paid a little more attention, we might realize that food is more than fuel. It could and should be an opportunity to connect with our own senses, our own communities, and the world in which we live. Food is biology, chemistry, physics, history, arithmetic, geometry, art, and psychology on a plate. It’s the sort of real life learning we all hunger for, but seems to be missing from our schools. We owe it to our children to do better.

But don’t blame the Lunch Lady. She’s doing the best she can down in Lunch Lady Land.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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