When I was in elementary school, my mother made my lunches, so I ate well. I did have friends who ate at the cafeteria, though, and I remember a lot of meals like hamburgers, pizza, hot dogs and spaghetti, with ice cream for dessert. After elementary, my schools didn’t even have cafeterias, though one did have a food truck that only sold burgers, corn dogs and the like. Not what you’d call healthy or balanced! Recently, though, there’s been a public backlash against the poor quality of many school lunches.
I can’t talk about the subject without immediately bringing up Jamie Oliver, who famously pioneered a return to nutritious meals in British schools, starting with his show Jamie’s School Dinners in 2005. This eventually led to the nation-wide Feed Me Better movement. It was a hard road, and there is still a lot of progress to be made, but he has managed to get the government to spend more money on school lunches and to ban, or at least reduce, the junk food available in schools. Kids’ test scores even improved after a year! In 2010, he took the concept across the pond with Jamie’s Food Revolution. I remember seeing an episode and being appalled at how few students could correctly identify fruits and vegetables or tell you where butter comes from. The States have shown even more resistance to healthy changes than Britain, unfortunately, despite parallel movements by the likes of Michelle Obama and her Let’s Move campaign with its healthy school lunch component.
The first time I saw actual pictures, though, was on an anonymous teacher’s blog, where she posted the day’s school lunch along with her comments (gallery of images here, cleverly titled Fed Up With Lunch). Those are really unappetizing, and I can’t imagine having to eat that every day! There is in fact a vegetable quota to maintain, but since lobbyists have made pizza a vegetable because of a schmear of tomato paste, one can legitimately wonder how many actual vegetables are in school lunches. (For the record, tomatoes are technically fruits. Moreover, while it is possible to make a healthy pizza, for example one with a thin whole-grain crust, lots of veggies and a little cheese, this is a far cry from what is being served in school cafeterias. A serving of vegetables is widely regarded as being half a cup.)
There’s also Martha Payne, who started her blog when she was nine years old to document her school lunches and offer her comments – which, in all fairness, were constructive criticism. She got media attention, including Jamie Oliver’s endorsement, which got her over a million hits in a single day! Her school council asked her to stop blogging, because it was reflecting badly on them, but had to backpedal and allow her to continue given the overwhelming amount of public support in her favor. There has been some improvement in her school lunches, too, so she now focuses on readers’ submissions of lunches from schools in other places, as well as support of charities that provide school lunches in impoverished countries.
Other individuals have had success, albeit on a smaller scale. For example, there’s Roxanne Klein, a raw vegan chef, who has successfully changed the lunch menu at her daughters’ schools. Sometimes, it was a matter of cooking dishes herself, convincing parents to pay an extra dollar a day to go organic as well as finding a vegetarian caterer who could make meals approved by kids, staff and parents alike. Other times, it was as simple as taking the kids to her garden and teaching them the difference between a fat white grocery store strawberry and a small red local strawberry in season to ensure not only that they would never go back, but also that they would willingly eat healthy food.
This is in part a matter of budget, of course, but I think the budget itself reflects the values of a given society. In Sweden, for example, school lunches are much more generous (photo gallery here – there’s a lot of gravy, but overall, lunches are more appetizing and contain more vegetables than in the United States).
France seems to have the issue under control, as you can see in this CBS video. Paris schools have a budget of $5-6 dollars a day per child; it’s about half that in a small town further south, but even then the meals are balanced and, in some cases, better than what the students get at home.
Let’s forget one moment about the pleasure and social aspects of eating. When one realizes that not only are students performing better at school when they have nutritious lunches, but that it also protects their long-term health and that of their family, with repercussions well into adulthood, I have trouble understanding why leaders aren’t just cutting the bullshit and getting together to do what’s best for the society at large. Put your money where your mouth is, quite literally.