In the past few weeks, I’ve been just inundated by people sending me this link showing “school lunches around the world” and how poorly America’s lunches fare by comparison. Like this:
First, most people understandably but mistakenly believe these photos depict actual lunches served in actual schools. Even some news outlets seem to have made this error. Instead, all of these lunches are mock-ups created by Sweetgreen, a “fast casual” restaurant chain which also offers wellness workshops to children in various schools in the Northeast.
Sweetgreen says it based is photos on “some typical school meals around the world,” but it doesn’t tell us how it obtained the information underlying the photos. Were the meals modeled on public school menus? Private school menus? Are the meals depicted typical of what’s served in a given country, or did Sweetgreen cherry-pick the most appealing items? And on what basis were the elements chosen for America’s school meal?
I don’t have answers to those questions but here are some things I do know. Let’s start with this mouth-watering “school meal” from Greece:
According to a 2013 New York Times piece—notably entitled “More Children in Greece Are Going Hungry”—Greek schools actually “do not offer subsidized cafeteria lunches. Students bring their own food or buy items from a canteen. The cost has become insurmountable for some families with little or no income.” So I’m not sure who’s getting the lunch above, replete with fresh pomegranate seeds and just-picked citrus. But I do know that while Greek school kids were reportedly going hungry in 2013, over 20 million economically distressed kids in this country were being fed nutritious, federally subsidized meals every single school day.
Kinda makes you proud to be an American, doesn’t it?
Then there’s France. I’ve been blogging about school food for five years and if I had a franc for every time someone’s told me about the superior school meals in that country, I’d have enough money to buy every TLT reader this lunch:
French school meals are superior to ours–quelle suprise! According to this report, the amount spent on the food in French school meals can exceed two dollars—twice what American districts are left with after overhead. And I actually suspect that the money available to schools for food may be much higher, given this post by Karen Le Billon which indicates that parents are assessed a price on a sliding scale, with the wealthiest parents paying a whopping $7 per meal. More importantly, as Le Billon so well documented in French Kids Eat Everything, almost every aspect of French food culture, including widespread nutrition education and early “taste training,” supports better school meals, both their provision by schools and their acceptance by children.
We should learn what we can from France, of course, yet it hardly seems fair to compare its school food to our own when so many factors in this country which thwart better meals aren’t nearly as problematic there: chronic underfunding; the financial competition districts face from home-packed lunches (which are strongly discouraged in France), competitive food, junk food fundraising and open campuses; the $2 billion spent each year on the advertising of junk food to American children; and an American food culture which celebrates junk food instead of actively discouraging its consumption as France does (including by requiring warning messages on junk food ads).
And by the way, apparently not every meal served in French schools is worthy of a Michelin star. On the What’s For School Lunch? blog, where real people around the world submit their actual photos of school meals, I spotted this French school lunch featuring chicken nuggets:
And that leads to another point. How can any one meal accurately represent an entire nation’s school meal program? For example, let’s assume that some Ukrainian kids really are eating what Sweetgreen depicts:
That’s great. But, according to What’s For School Lunch?, other Ukrainian kids are getting this dismal meal of hot dog slices, white pasta, broth and bread:
So which is the “real” Ukrainian school meal?
By the same token, look at some of the American school meals I compiled from the School Meals That Rock Facebook page. They’re all a far cry from the pallid chicken nugget meal depicted by Sweetgreen.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we ignore the fact that many American school districts are churning out truly terrible school food. Here’s a photo sent to me just this week by a Lunch Tray reader of her child’s lunch:
But if Sweetgreen’s goal was to raise awareness about school nutrition (and not just garner a lot of publicity for its restaurants, which it did in spades), I fail to see what it accomplished by holding American schools up to an unrealistic international standard–whether the standard is unrealistic because it’s inaccurate (Greece) or because the country in question invests far more time, money, and effort than the United States in feeding its children (France.)
If Sweetgreen really wants to improve school food in this country, I wish it had given the many thousands of people who’ve now seen its mocked-up photos a meaningful call to action. Why not ask everyone who cares about this issue to sign this school food petition from the Pew Charitable Trusts, or to urge their Congressional representatives to adequately fund school meals in the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization? That’s how we get from chicken nuggets to Greek lemon chicken on orzo.
Or, as Dayle Hayes put it to me, “If you want school meals that rock in all U.S. schools, staged trays that ‘resemble’ school meals are not the way to get there.”
This post originally appeared on The Lunch Tray.