Written for children aged 9-12, What’s For Lunch?: How Schoolchildren Eat Around the World looks at meals from Kenya to Afghanistan, Russia to Brazil. But the book is more than just a collection of interesting photos; rather, author Andrea Curtis uses school food as a starting point for age-appropriate discussions of larger societal issues like poverty and the environment. You’ll see what I mean from my recent interview with her:
TLT: What motivated you to write this book?
AC: I live in Toronto, Canada, where 90 per cent of public school kids bring a packed lunch to school. We are the only G8 nation without a national nutrition program for school-aged kids. Every morning, I struggle with what to send my two boys for lunch at their downtown public schools—something healthy and interesting that can be packed in a small bag (and eaten in about 10 minutes). They’re pretty good eaters, but at the end of the day we’re invariably emptying their bags of browned apples and slimy uneaten cucumbers.
I started to wonder if I’m struggling—and I can afford healthy food and like to cook—what do families around the world with far fewer resources do? That sent me on a mission to find out what kids eat for school lunch around the world.
TLT: What’s your main goal for the book? What do you hope kids will take away from it?
AC: I’d like kids to see that they can make a difference in their own school and community and that lunch is a great place to start.
TLT: Is school food your springboard to talk about larger issues and, if so, what are some of those issues?
AC: Since kids eat lunch every day at school (whether it’s packed for them at home or offered in a school cafeteria), I see it as a perfect opportunity to talk about the ways that their food is connected to their environment, their health, their community and issues of equity around the world.
TLT: How did you go about choosing the particular countries you feature, and how did you gather the information about school meals in each place? Did you visit all of them?
AC: I was looking for geographic diversity and a variety of approaches to feeding kids their midday meal. But unfortunately, Canadian children’s publishing doesn’t have the budget for a world tour! I’ve travelled to (and even lived in) a number of the countries in the book in the past but didn’t go specifically for this project. Instead, I connected with teachers in Peru and Russia, activists in Bangladesh, community workers in Britain, children in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere, parents and other educators via Skype, land line and online. I discovered a world of people who care deeply about our food system. It was a thrilling and fascinating research project.
TLT: What’s your overall impression of school food, both around the world and in most schools in the United States?
AC: I found that there are nearly as many different ways to approach school lunch as there are nations, but that how a country feeds kids at school reveals a great deal about its values, priorities and views about the role of food in their society. I was impressed by some, depressed by others.
I was frankly surprised to see how unhealthy and unappetizing some of the school lunches are in the U.S. (things like Frito pie, canned fruit and greasy pizza, especially), but I’ve also watched the emergence of the new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act carefully. I think it’s a terrific move forward. Still, as I’ve seen in other countries, healthy school meals have to be part of a wholesale cultural shift in schools and communities for the changes to have a wide-ranging impact.
In Canada, we don’t have a school nutrition program at all. Some schools (especially in low-income areas) have breakfasts, snacks or hot meals, but it’s the result of a patchwork of government and private funding. Many children and families are left to eat inadequate and unhealthy food. The consequences, for far too many children, are hunger, ill-health and an inability to focus and perform in school. I’d love to see my government take a stand and realize that they either pay now or pay later—in, among other ways, rising health care costs on obesity and diet-related illness, and in unrealized potential from kids who don’t succeed in school because they are hungry and/or undernourished.
TLT: Do you think some countries are doing a better job and, if so, in what ways?
AC: Everyone talks about France as a model of how to do school lunch. There, the kids have 30-45 minutes to eat and enjoy a four-course meal—including a cheese course! It sounds fabulous, but I like to point to Brazil as a more surprising model—in fact, nations around the world are already looking to Brazil for inspiration and leadership when it comes to school lunch. In a country with widespread poverty, they’ve come up with a scheme so that not only is the meal provided free to 47 million schoolchildren, it’s also fresh and delicious. School meal providers are also required to source 30% of the food they serve from small-scale local producers, so each region’s economy also benefits. Finally, there is local control of service providers, menus and other incidentals so the lunches can be accommodated to the different needs of the communities they serve. This integration of the entire food system—a holistic approach—is what makes Brazil such an interesting approach to school lunch.
TLT: Is there anything else you’d like to tell Lunch Tray readers about the book?
AC: People often suggest to me that kids don’t care about what they eat and that given the opportunity, they’d chose nothing but hot dogs and fries and drink nothing but soda. But in all my research and interviews, I found this was simply not true.
Not only is this a particularly North American take on things—-and the result of intense marketing to children and adults alike—-I found that given the opportunity to learn about food (where it comes from, how its grown, transported and packaged) and to get involved in cooking, growing and sharing it, children make great choices about what they eat.
I think teaching children food literacy (especially how what we eat is connected to so many things we all care about, including the environment, health and poverty) is one of the most important things we can do as parents and educators.
* * *
Thank you to Andrea Curtis for allowing me to interview her today. And now . . . the giveaway! Just leave a comment below by tomorrow (October 17th) at 6pm CST to enter. You can tell me why you’d like to win What’s For Lunch? or you can just say hi. I’ll use a random number generator after the comment period closes to select one lucky winner and if you comment twice (e.g., to respond to another reader’s comment), I’ll use the number of your first comment to enter you in the drawing. I’ll email you directly if you win and announce the winner on TLT’s Facebook page, too. Good luck!
Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 4,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.