Growing up, I never really paid attention to the nutritional content in my school’s lunch program. But now, after having two children of my own, I’m concerned about what food they are eating at daycare, and eventually, what they will be eating in their elementary school.
The US standards for school food are extremely lower than that of some European countries, particularly France. Let’s just say if there was a World Cup for school lunch nutrition, France would be kicking our tails right now! When you compare French and American school lunches, it is quite apparent why childhood obesity rates are growing in the US. American schools serve lunches that consist of highly processed foods, loaded with sodium, calories, saturated fat, preservatives, etc. And very little of what they serve even resembles real food.
Conversely, in France all school lunches are freshly prepared with real food, not prepackaged. Even the approach to lunch is different. For instance, a typical school lunch in France includes “courses”, including an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert, accompanied by water or milk. On any given day, a French school lunch could include:
A Typical School Lunch in France
- Fresh bread and salad
- Veal scallops or baked fish with lemon sauce
- Fruit and yogurt
- Water or white milk
Compare that to…
A Typical School Lunch in the US
- Frozen cheesey bread
- Frozen chicken fingers or fish sticks and fries
- Fried apples or chocolate pudding
- Flavored milk, juice, or soda
Furthermore, a typical school lunch in France lasts about an hour, reinforcing the French tradition of eating slowly and savoring your food. In the US, children get roughly 20 minutes to finish their meal and socialize with friends, reinforcing the habit of eating fast and not really recognizing what your eating, let along the signs that you’re full.
Obviously, school lunch programs are not only to blame for childhood obesity rates and unhealthy childhood eating habits. Children learn from their family and friends and even from television what is “good” and what is “bad” in regard to food and nutrition. Still, what they learn in school and from their classmates about nutrition can stay with them for the rest of their lives.
In elementary and high school, my family could never really afford the daily school-provided lunches, which included sloppy joes, French fries, and chicken fingers. At the time, I really wished that I could afford the hot lunch so that I could be like everyone else. But what I realize now is how lucky I am that I did NOT eat those lunches. Instead, I would brown bag my lunch with a salad or a sandwich and whatever fruit or dessert we had in the house. By doing this, I not only saved money, but I learned the basics of healthy eating at a very young age and how to differentiate processed food from real, nutritious food.
Fast forward 20 years and I am nearly disgusted to think about what was served to my classmates back then, and even more disgusted that they still serve such unhealthy food in schools today. I understand that American schools and districts have certain policies about food and that any food is better than none for kids whose parents can’t afford to feed them. But there’s no reason why we can’t serve our children healthy and real food.
I am fortunate that my children attend a daycare program that serves relatively healthy meals. Of course, I pay a hefty fee for this. But it’s a small price to pay to reinforce what I am teaching my children about healthy nutrition. And years from now, if US school lunches do not improve, I will be the mother packing brown bag lunches for my children, whether they like it or not.
I’m hoping they thank me for it later.