Strangely enough, in the past few days, I have been thinking a lot about school lunches.
On a social networking site, a friend posted a link to a blog maintained by a teacher who is normally a health-conscious eater, choosing organic fruits and vegetables and avoiding highly processed foods and those high in sugar. She is appalled by what is served to her students by the school lunch program, whose menus nevertheless meet the minimum standards established by U.S.D.A. guidelines. To raise awareness of this issue (i.e., to alert unsuspecting parents and other citizens to what is being served to school children in the name of "healthy school lunches"), she has chosen to eat dinner at her school each day, and she posts photos, descriptions, and reactions daily on her blog. Check it out: Fed Up with Lunch: The School Lunch Project. Do the daily meals at her school resemble those served at your local schools?
Compare the pre-packaged offerings shown on the former blog with the homemade, from-local-ingredients offerings shown on this blog: Mr. Ferguson's Classroom. The culture of food is quite different at his school (which, this year, is an early elementary school in Japan), where children assist with serving the food, everybody eats from real plates using real utensils at tables with table cloths and napkins, everybody says a "secular prayer of thanks" to those who cooked the meal before anyone begins to eat, adequate time is allowed for a relaxing pace throughout the meal, and each menu features lots of fruits and vegetables bought from the local market and made with care with a focus on nutrition rather than on herding the maximum number of students through the lunch line in the minimum amount of time for the minimum amount of cost of ingredients and labor. Students eat everything served to them, too, regardless of how little they may prefer a particular food item on the plate.
Have you ever watched any cooking shows featuring British chef Jamie Oliver? He happens to have just won the 2010 TED Prize for his plan to educate students and parents about healthy eating and home cooking and to improve the quality of school lunch programs as an effort to combat obesity and its resulting health problems (by the way, as a result of poor diet and lack of exercise, our nation's children are the first generation not expected to live as long as their parents). You can watch his acceptance speech here. This past Sunday, a new television show premiered on ABC: Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. It chronicles Mr. Oliver's efforts in Huntington, WV to transform unhealthy eating habits in the community and its schools.
A few times, I have eaten at our daughters' schools with them, and I rather enjoyed the food, which the girls say that they enjoy, too. I certainly haven't seen the children served trays of food in hermetically sealed carboard containers, as at the school featured in the first blog that I mentioned. There definitely is a rush to school lunch, though, as the adults move the children through the lunch line and then off to recess and then back to the classroom on a pretty tight schedule.
It would take a full-scale rethinking of how school lunch programs operate in order to slow down the pace of the noon meal and to focus on nutrition and social communion over efficiency and economy, and I don't know if this is on that many people's radar as an issue deserving of much attention (in light of other concerns that may seem more pressing) . . . especially for people in communities where a lot of families still sit down together each evening for a home-cooked meal. Would that that were the norm, though, and not the exception.