Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Norms of Food

In the article "School Lunches Around the World" in the Huffington Post, Marlene Phillips discusses the new Country Watch column from the website School Food Policy. These columns highlight the vastly different mentality that other countries hold toward food, in contrast to the US.

Think back to your high school cafeteria or even the "upgrade" to your dining hall. What food surrounds you? Burgers, fries, pizza, fried foods, overly sugared and overly oiled entrees. Of course, there will be a salad bar, but it, too, feels institutional. This "cornucopia" of the American diet does not change much from elementary school to college--the food quality might get a bit better, one would hope.

Let's take a short world tour to see how other countries engage in the ritual we call lunch...

For Japan,
"Japanese schoolchildren eat lunch in the classroom, and students take turns serving the meal and cleaning up afterward. Their teacher eats the same food with them -- typically rice, soup, fish and milk -- and pays close attention to manners."

The lunch here is actually made into something that teaches manners (the serving aspect) and a balanced diet. It is simple but appealing. Even better, the schools send out a calendar to the parents each month detailing the benefits of the food provided; I doubt most schools in the US would want to detail the "nutritional benefits" or detail the "organic and local variety" of their lunches (Sidwell, excluded).

To move from healthful and simple to a healthful gourmet, look at France,
"Here's what students in one Paris school district ate for lunch last Tuesday: cucumbers with garlic and fine herbs; Basque chicken thigh with herbs, red and green bell peppers and olive oil; couscous; organic yogurt and an apple. For snack, they had organic bread, butter, hot chocolate and fruit."

Reading this made me jealous. I would love to see this in any public school cafeteria or, even more so, in college. A colorful lunch, rich with produce and organic options--and some seasoning. Moreover, how awesome would it be for school to give organic bread, fruit, and hot chocolate as a snack?

When thinking about the environment, health, and community building (aka socialization process), I think Italy would win:
"On a recent Friday, students in the northern city of Piacenza ate zucchini risotto and mozzarella, tomato and basil salad. Tomorrow they're getting pesto lasagna, a selection of cheeses and a platter of garden vegetables. Meat only shows up on menus only once or twice a week, and it's usually not the main course."

I would have to say that the zucchini risotto and tomato and basil salad sound like better meatless options than the mediocre pizza that often characterizes our schools.

Such a diet not only confers environmental benefits (i.e. those conferred by organic diets, local diets, and vegetarian diets), but also promotes good health. Marlene Phillips makes a good point when she notes that we end up paying "twice" for these meals: once for their existence and a second time for the health detriments caused by them. A nation plagued with rising obesity rates and diabetes rates could save money on health care if the national diet of fat, salt, and sugar was eschewed for something like the examples above. I think it would be fascinating to see the economics done on the correlation of such a diet and health care costs; it is very difficult to extract the individual costs of many of the problems people face, but a good diet and exercise are always habits good for a healthy person and, likewise, a healthy planet.

(Photo courtesy of School Food Policy)

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