What do children around the world eat for lunch? Apparently, not what we think or hope. We’d like to think the children in Greece are being served grilled chicken and tomato-cucumber salads. Aren’t French children eating beef with haricot vert and finishing their meal with a piece of brie and an apple? Perhaps some of them are eating that way. But the unfortunate truth is that children around the globe are mostly eating the kinds of processed foods that are depressingly familiar to American school children and their parents.
A beautiful slideshow of aspirational traditional school lunches made the rounds on social media recently showing trays of food representing the mid-day meal in many countries, and featuring traditional foods that looked fresh and appealing. As has since been pointed out, those photographs are simply the ideal. They were produced by a company called Sweetgreen who have since been called to account for not making it clear that these were not photographs of actual school lunches. As others have pointed out, the reality in schools is more likely to be hamburgers, hotdogs, french fries, and fried fish no matter the location.
Rather than getting too hung up on journalistic integrity in this matter, perhaps we could step back and look at the food that was being presented as appropriate for children. The reason these photographs were so widely circulated in the first place is that the food looks good. We all thought, look at those lucky little Finnish kids with their vegetable soup, beet salad, roasted squash, and whole wheat crepe with fresh berries. And the one dear to my heart, was the Italian lunch: a small portion of pasta, roasted chicken on arugula, a lettuce and tomato salad, and a plump bunch of grapes. It all looks so tasty. It all seems so sensible especially when shown in contrast with the “typical” American school lunch of chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes, peas, chocolate chip cookies, and what looks like fruit salad from a can.
When I was writing The Lost Art of Feeding Kids, I ate lunch at my son’s school in Rome, Italy. He was still in preschool at that time. I watched his class, a group of five-year-olds, eating their first course of pasta with ragu, which is a little beef and pork sausage slow-cooked with vegetables in tomato sauce. There is very little meat per serving, but when it’s well prepared, as it was at the school, it is so delicious. The children ate it with evident pleasure. For their second course, they had eggs scrambled with parmesan cheese and a good helping of green salad on the side. When they finished this, they were allowed to have bread if they wanted (it was served at the end of the meal so they didn’t fill up on it first). Sometimes they had fruit too, but usually they saved it for later in the afternoon. The bread was sourdough with a crunchy crust, and had been delivered in the morning from a bakery that still bakes bread in a wood oven. To drink, there was water. On other days they had pumpkin risotto followed by baked fish and green beans, or bowls of bright green pureed broccoli soup followed by lentil stew with a side of spinach. There was one menu with no alternatives. All the children ate the same thing and they ate it with their teachers. Eating together helps reduce picky eating because they inspire each other to try new things, and it helps to build a sense of community and camaraderie around the table. All the children, from the pre-schoolers up to the big kids in grade 8, enjoyed the lunch hour.
The food was prepared at the school. The ingredients were fresh, and the meals reflected the traditional food culture of Italy.
Some schools in Rome are still trying to offer children a good lunch like this, but many have had to cut corners. Where the public schools used to buy everything organic from local farmers, which also helped to stimulate the local economy, they are now buying their ingredients from larger, industrial producers. Some schools have let go of their kitchen staff and are having school lunch catered. Slowly, with all these cost cutting measures, the quality is deteriorating and more prepared foods are making their way into the schools.
But Americans shouldn’t find comfort in the fact that European school children are eating as poorly as their own. The photos prepared by Sweetgreen should act as a catalyst, which is what I think they were intended to do in the first place. The photos all show simple, tasty-looking, well-balanced meals. There’s no crazy foodie food that can only be prepared by a Michelin star chef. It’s just food, the stuff children need to eat to grow up healthy.
It’s a terrible shame when you see how easy it can be to feed children good, healthy food that not only nourishes their bodies, but gives them a sense of place and a sense of community. Sharing good, local food can do that—it’s not an unrealistic romantic dream.
When we’re through taking our inspiration from Sweetgreen’s slide show, we should forward it on to schools in Finland and Greece and other countries to remind them of what was once theirs by right.
Jeannie Marshall is the author of The Lost Art of Feeding Kids. She has written for Canadian national newspapers and magazines such as the Globe and Mail and the Walrus. Before moving to Italy in 2002, she was a features writer at the Toronto-based National Post.