This summer National Geographic Magazine had a one page article comparing cafeteria food from three countries (the United States, Russia, and Japan). I thought it was interesting to compare school lunches from different countries.
Photographer Renee Comet and stylist Lisa Cherkasky worked with National Geographic and captured pictures of school cafeteria food. The pictures show cultural differences in these three countries, yet at the same time the picture of the American cafeteria food shows a current issue that the American schools face. While the lunches from Russia and Japan show natural, mostly unprocessed foods, the American foods are highly processed, lacking in nutrition and high in calories.
My husband, growing up in Japan, remembers eating nutritionally balanced school lunches. The lunch was composed of grain (rice or bread), protein (meat, fish, or tofu), vegetable or fruits (as a side and in soup), and milk. (The picture from National Geographic looks a bit heavy on carbs; he said his was usually more rounded out with protein.) The children were encouraged to eat all the food served. He also remembers that his elementary school and middle school had a nutritionist who planned the food and taught kids about nutrition. Learning about the food, nutrition, and health was an important part of the school curriculum. Lunch was also an important opportunity to learn social behavior and work with a group. Children were responsible for serving the lunch and cleaning up.
When I was in high school, my family could not afford to buy hot lunch; instead, my lunch typically consisted of a sandwich, veggie slices, and a fruit. If I was lucky, I also got some chips. I drank water. I do remember that sometimes the cafeteria offered delicious, decadent peanut butter bars with thick chocolate on them. I would spend the little money I had on those. Thankfully, they weren’t in the cafeteria that often. I never really felt bad about not getting hot lunch because I thought most of the food was disgusting. I didn’t like pizza at the time, and that seemed to be what most of the kids’ ordered.
At my son’s elementary school, there is no hot lunch offered. Once every two weeks they get a special hot lunch from a local restaurant (usually pizza, hot dogs, etc.). I think that is great balance; they get a treat twice a month, but the rest of the time they bring food from home.
For many kids, hot lunch is a choice, but for many others living on a limited budget, hot lunch is a chance to get a meal and feel full, something they may not get routinely at home. For all of our kids, but especially those who get the majority of their meals at school, America needs to change their standards and serve healthier, more nutritious fare.