When I was a kid, my public elementary school’s cafeteria was about as exciting as a typical fast-food joint on the side of a freeway. (Actually, scratch that—it didn’t serve anything near as mouthwatering as McDonald’s french fries or In-N-Out’s Animal-Style Double Double.) The most exciting food the kitchen ever produced was French bread pizza, which we kids lined up for eagerly every Friday. At the time, the fact that there was nary a fresh vegetable in sight didn’t even register with me, but in hindsight, I shudder to think of all the nutrients my young body was missing out on soaking up by picking at mayo-sodden tuna-fish sandwiches instead of salad, or ice-cream bars instead of yogurt. As renowned chef Jamie Oliver has recently set out to prove (with great success) through his Food Revolution campaign for healthy eating in public schools across America, the typical school lunch in the United States leaves much to be desired, nutritionally and otherwise. Meanwhile, many other countries seem to be leaps and bounds ahead of us in terms of their own offerings. Risotto, anyone?
Like the older generations in Italy, schoolchildren there eat very, very well for lunch, enjoying mostly organic, locally sourced foods. Starch (in the form of pasta or risotto) is the centerpiece of every lunch; salad and small servings of meat play a supplementary role. But lunch isn’t the only daytime fare—snacks are wildly popular among kids and often err on the sugary side; common treats include bread with Nutella, prepackaged cakes, and candy.
The Ukraine breeds carnivores from an early age: it’s not uncommon for schools there to include meat in every lunch course. A sample menu might offer borsch, a traditional beet soup made with vegetables and meat; sausage or a meat cutlet; mashed potatoes; and a pancake for dessert.
On Thursdays in Finland, a traditional green-pea soup called hernekeitto is on the menu at many schools. Other days of the week, the Finnish government carefully monitors the quality of students’ meals throughout the country, mandating that they’re “tasty, colorful, and well balanced.” That might mean ham-and-potato casserole, spinach pancakes, sausage soup, or barley porridge. In addition, serving sizes are carefully proportioned: one-half cooked and raw vegetables (often carrot and beet salads), one-quarter starch, and one-quarter protein. Almost every school provides a vegetarian meal daily.
Japanese schoolchildren learn their culture’s healthy eating habits early on through well-balanced school lunches, called kyuushoku, usually containing foods such as cucumber salad, grilled fish, rice, miso soup with tofu and seaweed, and milk. The menu often changes seasonally, to include cream stew or sweet curried rice in the winter and cold noodles in the summer. Teachers pay strict attention to the students as they eat, ensuring that no child takes seconds until she’s cleaned her plate; kids take turns serving each other and even grow some of the food they eat in their own educational garden.
Originally the traditional meal of the Kikuyu tribe, the standard lunch dish now served in schools across the country is a simple yet hearty mixture of beans and dried corn called githeri. Students line up with plastic bowls to receive a single helping, often the only meal they will eat all day. One recent initiative to remedy these circumstances involves Kenyan officials’ working directly with elementary schools to grow gardens and raise livestock on their grounds.
As in Italy, French school lunches are a highfalutin affair featuring hearty, multicourse gourmet meals. A government-sponsored lunch in a restaurant scolaire (school canteen) might consist of cucumber salad with garlic and fines herbes; Basque chicken thighs; red and green bell peppers tossed with olive oil; couscous; fresh bread; organic yogurt; and an apple. Other possible entrées include lamb with paprika, hake with lemon sauce, or veal Marengo.
What’s Eating You?
Healthy eating may start at home, but kids spend so much time at school during their formative years that receiving proper lunchtime nourishment in their cafeterias, canteens, and restaurants scolaires is equally important. Whether students are dining on sustainably farmed fresh produce or choking down institutional sloppy joes, the lessons they learn about food will stay with them as long as the basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills they pick up in the classroom do.