adventures in modern, urban domesticity

School Lunch Utopia/Dystopia

School Lunch Bowl

There are so many reasons given for why we can’t seem to get it together to serve healthy food, family style, in our public schools. They are too big! It wouldn’t be economical! Too complicated! And it would take too much time from the core curriculum, to name a few. But underneath all of those very real (but not insurmountable) roadblocks, lurks the sad fact that our food culture sees standing in line with a tray and scarfing down food as an acceptable norm.  The book I recommended in my last post, What’s For Lunch, does a good job of showing what students eat around the world, but this video, by Atsuko Quirk, documenting the school day of a large public school in Saitama, Japan, proves that the how of lunchtime could be done very differently.  This delightful 8-minute short follows 5th grader, Yui, to her large, public elementary school where nearly 700 students in grades 1-6 eat a freshly cooked meal in their classrooms every day. From home, each child brings a table mat, a smock and hair net, their own chopsticks, and – get this – a toothbrush and mug for post-meal dental hygiene. The video follows her class of 38 students and one teacher through their lunch period which lasts for 45 minutes. Every student seems to have a job, some go to the central kitchen to fetch their food, others set up the serving stations and dish out portions to their classmates.  They eat everything, even playing “rock, paper, scissors” to decide who gets the last piece of fish.  And do you know what the students do after lunch? They clean the school.  And I don’t mean put away the pencils.  They spend 20 minutes sweeping and washing the floors and bathrooms and hallways together.  And it doesn’t even seem like a chore, it’s just what you do.  I can’t even begin to imagine my kids doing this, but I’d like to. Thinking tonight might be a good time to start.  Ms. Quirk is the videographer for Cafeteria Culture and has made a number of really excellent videos on topics related to sustainability and wellness in the schools, all worth watching here.


School Lunch in Japan “It’s Not Just About Eating!” from Atsuko Quirk on Vimeo.

Now, compare that practically utopian vision of lunch to this next video made last spring by a NYC 4th-grader.  YUCK is a 20 minute documentary made by Zachary Maxwell, who bravely went undercover, Michael Moore-style, to reveal that the lunch he was being served at school each day didn’t exactly match the menu published by the DOE.  It’s the same menu our kids get, DOE meal planning being city-wide, and I, myself, have always been struck by the optimistic description of lunch meals.  Just enough to get your hopes up.  But young Zachary found that “Savory Roast Chicken with Chef’s Choice Sauce, Rice Pilaf, Seasoned Beans and Sweet Plantains” didn’t much resemble what he found on his tray.  The biggest disconnect came on “Italian Day” when his lasagna proved to be a grilled cheese sandwich that had been heated in a plastic bag.  Yuck.


Once he was caught by school officials, his undercover filming came to an abrupt end, but not before he had filmed 15 weeks worth of cafeteria lunches.  Once he crunched the numbers, he found that the meals only matched the DOE’s menu 16% of the time and only 51% of the meals were even close to the menu descriptions. Over a quarter of the lunches consisted of either pizza or cheese sticks. It’s hard not to be completely outraged watching this, and at the same time impressed that it was made by an 11-year old (I’m guessing he won’t have any trouble getting into middle school).

I watched the film with my kids this week, not only because it is funny and entertaining and totally directed at the elementary-school set, but because it’s a great way for them to start talking about school food and to feel empowered about what kids can do to stand up for themselves and effect change. Who knows? Maybe one day our kids will be wearing hair nets and eating sardines for lunch. And then cleaning up after themselves.  Stranger things have happened!


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5 Comments on “School Lunch Utopia/Dystopia

  1. Lynne
    September 12, 2013

    Love this. Great piece.

  2. Karyn
    September 12, 2013

    Japan is amazing! Like Lynne, I loved this piece you wrote, too. Reminded me of this on lunch in Japan, from an NPR blog:

    Okay, my blog-reading break is over; back to work! I’m so glad Domaphile is back!

  3. Billie
    September 12, 2013

    The school lunch in Japan is incredible! And makes so much more sense than what is portrayed in “Yuck.” It’s amazing that the state of school lunch is so poor here in America. Thanks for sharing!

  4. thefolia
    September 12, 2013

    I love your enthusiasm for healthy food in school–I wish more people would care for even a sliver of your zest to make meals healthy again. This fast food and “food” in packages is killing us. Thanks for sharing the inspiring video–I am sharing this with my children’s school staff!

  5. Helen Topcik
    September 14, 2013

    OMG–the Japanese models makes our school lunches even more dismal by comparison. This is not just limited to NYC… thinking back on my school lunches as a student and a teacher—well, I don’t want to even do that. I guess the only positive takeaway is the gratitude I feel for our children’s strong immune systems.

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This entry was posted on September 11, 2013 by in COMMUNITY, KIDS + FAMILY and tagged , , .


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