Tomorrow is the first day of school, and though we haven’t yet bought our school supplies, I am thinking mostly about lunch, which takes up only about 20 minutes of my children’s school day. What can we pack them this year that will sustain them? What will they actually eat? Nothing is more disappointing than unpacking a sad, wilted, untouched lunch at the end of the day only to have your child tell you, “I just didn’t have time, or I wasn’t hungry”. Hanging around my kids this summer, I know that if they don’t get a decent meal in them at regular intervals, they start to pop a gasket and get “hangry” as we like to call it, hungry + angry. Not the best combination for sitting at your desk and learning fractions. Yet, despite the fact that they eat only about 40% of what we send with them each day, I can’t just bring myself to let them eat school lunch on a regular basis. Not after I learned that the “peanut butter sandwich” my daughter claimed to be eating instead of her lunch was actually made out of cookies instead of bread. Like an ice cream sandwich, but with peanut butter. You get the idea. On the one hand, kind of genius. On the other, WTF????
In the same way that some people cultivate their fantasy football teams, I have a fantasy elementary school I like to dream about where the entire curriculum is based around the preparing and eating of lunch. Seriously, I think you could basically cover all subjects thoroughly using this model. The students would have to research and plan a wide range of meals from around the world each week. Maybe one unit would be devoted to French sauces and the next week would focus on dumplings. Each unit would cover nutrition, budgeting, geography and culture (otherwise known as science, math and social studies) with the bonus subjects of Botany and Agriculture, as they would cultivate some of the food prepared in the school’s garden à la Alice Waters, of course! Each day, they would divide into groups with some students working on their knife skills in the kitchen, while others would focus on properly setting the table with real silverware (no sporks in my fantasy school!). Once the morning lessons were complete, they would sit down, family style, with napkins in their laps, to enjoy the food they prepared while participating in a group discussion on what they’ve been reading lately, or the upcoming primary election. How civilized! Afterward, they would work collaboratively to clean up, composting their food scraps and minimizing waste, have a short nap (that’s just my fantasy, actually) and then head outside for some fresh air and exercise. The rest of the day would be devoted to reading, writing, music and art. During restaurant week, everyone would go out to lunch (field trip!). Dreamy, right? I’m sure there are private schools out there that approximate my vision, but my fantasy school would be public.
Although I really do love and appreciate the public school my children attend, it is a far cry from my imaginary school- especially in terms of food culture. Last spring, I got the chance to witness the elementary school lunch in all its glory when I was helping out at the composting station in the cafeteria. Despite the fact that our school actually has a compost program, and has done its best to incorporate healthful meals with the help of chef Bill Telepan (whose restaurant is divine) and the Wellness in the Schools program, the sense memory was intense and it was surreal to see hundreds of kids partake in the ritual of school lunch that hadn’t changed much from when I was in 2nd grade, some 30 years ago: the noisy cafeteria, the lining up with trays, the food itself and the deafening chaos. All of this made me think about how much we accept the way kids eat lunch every day as some kind of immutable right of passage- as if it was always this way – even though cafeteria-style dining only dates back to the late 19th-century and our current school lunch program started in the 1940s.
While most people will agree that the state of school lunch in our country – from the questionable nutrition derived from surplus commodities to the prison-like atmosphere – is deeply flawed, fundamentally changing it seems like an impossible task with almost 30 million children eating lunch in 98,000 schools every day. Yet, there are many people and organizations who are taking on this very issue and on many different fronts. Locally, the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food is working on improving the quality of nutrition in our schools while Cafeteria Culture is an organization that addresses issues of waste and was instrumental in getting styrofoam trays out of NYC schools. In Philadelphia, a few public schools are starting to experiment with family-style eating, with the help of the Vetri Foundation, started by chef Marc Vetri, and dedicated to reforming the culture of food in the schools. I’m sure there are many others and I am looking forward to finding out more about them this year.
There has also been a fair amount of writing on the subject recently, from Fed up with Lunch, where an elementary school teacher took it upon herself to eat school lunch every day for a year and blog about the results (anonymously) to School Lunch Politics: the surprising history of America’s favorite welfare program, a scholarly look at the history of the school lunch program in the United States by Susan Levine. One of my favorites in this genre, however, is Andrea Curtis’ book, What’s for Lunch?, detailing how schoolchildren eat their lunch all over the world. It is one of the few books on the subject designed for kids and covers about a dozen countries – from the pizza and tater tots we consume here in the US, to the simple dal that schoolchildren eat in India – often served on a piece of paper if they don’t have utensils. As expected, Japan and France are the clear frontrunners in the school lunch arena – serving meals that reflects a well-developed food culture in their countries. I have been reading it with my kids and it is a fun way to start a discussion with them about why lunch is more than just the gateway to recess. Curtis’ blog, Unpacking School Lunch, contains a trove of resources (including the graphic below) for incorporating these issues into the classroom and ideas for how kids themselves can get involved.
All of this points to some exciting possibilities on the school lunch front. Perhaps in the future, school-day dining will take advantage of all the ways it can be used as an educational tool, helping to prepare kids not to stand in line (like in prison), but to sit and enjoy a meal like we hope they will be able to as functional adults. That is the goal, right? However, I’m sure my children will be well out of elementary school by the time they replace those peanut butter cookie sandwiches with the real thing, or even with something better. In the meantime, I will be packing their lunch tomorrow. With what? I still have no idea. We could use some inspiration here at the 11th hour.
To all of you jumping into the school-year fray tomorrow, Godspeed! Heaven knows we will need it.