The following is a guest post from Mila Sanchez, a writer with a BA in English Linguistics living in beautiful Boise, ID. Her ambitions include traveling the world, studying languages, and taking pictures of her dog, Baymax. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram!
It’s a well known fact that Americans have some of the worst nutrition habits of the developed world. We have learned behaviors that we have inherited from family and friends, and it doesn’t help that, according to the University of Southern California, we are easily persuaded as consumers when buying food. In recent years, we are becoming more aware of these bad habits, and are trying not to pass them on to our kids. While we can control how they eat at home, can we guarantee they will be eating well at school?
As a very involved aunt, I try to keep up with what’s going on in my nieces’ school, including school lunch. In 2010, new nutritional guidelines were placed in school under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, in an effort to bring healthy food to kids and help fight childhood obesity. Despite the mandate, the healthy changes that were made are often rejected by the kids. I witnessed it first hand when I went to have lunch with one of my nieces; garbage cans full of wasted food like fruits and vegetables.
While living and working in Japan, one of my adult students told me about her job. She was a nutritionist who planned the school lunches for the city, and she also went to all the public elementary schools in the city frequently to teach students about proper nutrition. I began to ask her and other students more about how the Japanese school system’s lunch and food education worked, and what I learned changed how I thought about school lunch, and that it can be so much more than just another meal.
Japan has a very unique approach to school lunch and food education. In Japanese schools, food education is given very high priority. In elementary school, food is picked up from the cafeteria, brought to the classroom, and served by the students. Everyone in the class eats together and has the same food, learning good table manners and to not be picky. The menu is usually rooted in traditional Japanese dishes like miso, fish and rice. Junior highs and high schools are a little different; some schools offer cafeteria lunch, but most schools require that students bring a bento (home lunch). In many junior high and high schools, both male and female students are required to take home economics classes to learn to cook their own meals. Through all the education students in Japan get about food, they grow up with good habits and a deep appreciation for food in general.
France seems to take on a somewhat similar approach to Japan. According to Karen le Billon, children in France are required to all eat the same lunch provided by the school; they are not allowed to bring food from home. The lunch menu takes guidelines set by the French Ministry of National Education. The menu is diverse and does not shy away from strong flavors, as they believe that introducing strong flavors at young ages will better vary a person’s palate. This sounds like it would be a nightmare for someone as picky as my niece (who I’m positive would starve during the day if in a school lunch program such as this one), but Karen assures that even though it was a rough beginning for her own picky kids, they eventually adapted with encouragement from the lunch monitors and their peers. Children in French schools learn to appreciate and like trying new foods, a trait that will be beneficial their whole lives.
Since 2010, schools in Italy have revamped their school lunch program to reflect more deeply the Mediterranean diet. According to the global post, the Italian Ministry of Health has place guidelines that have school lunches be made from organic locally sourced food. Each meal has two main courses, with vegetables and fruit on the side. Along with changes in the lunch program, Italian school teachers are encouraged to add nutrition and food history to their lesson plans, so students can connect to their heritage and understand what they are eating on a better level.
It’s really interesting to see how school lunches can do more than just feed students. It can be a platform for teaching kids to have a good relationship with and knowledge of food, and to connect with their culture and with those around them. While school lunch and food education in the US has a long way to go, I hope examples set by other countries can one day influence how food education is approached in US schools.
Photo Credit: Flickr: woodleywonderworks– https://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/22263040962