Though the menu indicated that today’s lunch was called “Mix It Up Day”, I was not sure what was getting mixed up. To me, it looked like school lunch as usual, except that pizza was not the main entree. Working with the School-Based Health Program, I am usually in one of three of the district’s elementary schools on Fridays which is always Pizza Day unless it is Pizza Bagel Day. But, today was a Wednesday.
I headed into the lunchroom to see what was being rearranged or diverging from the norm. “Good afternoon. What’s for lunch today?”, I politely asked the lunch lady placing the black styrofoam containers on the white styrofoam trays that the children clutched as they moved down the line. “Chicken and cheese”, was the response.
Unable to see the contents hidden beneath the patterned cellophane wrap, I tried another gentle inquiry. With no clearer answer, I realized I’d have to figure it out on my own. On my investigational forays into the school lunchrooms, I’ve learned I must always smile broadly, express benign interest and not ask too many questions.
A few steps down, another lunch lady was in charge of two additional meal components–applesauce and puce green overcooked broccoli mush. Using a metal measuring cup she slopped the oozing applesauce into one of the bare compartments on each of the children’s trays. The broccoli mush, considered an optional rather than a required component, just lay in its big tray, ignored. Reminiscent of poor Oliver’s experience in the orphanage in Dicken’s England, I wondered could there not even be a small effort towards more attractive food preparation and presentation.
Continuing my quest to better understand the school lunch scene, and still needing to discover what that main course consisted of, I moved to stroll among the children who were already seated to eat. I found them contending with a dinner roll, two or three battered half dollar-sized circles–which I think was the chicken, and three battered mozzarella cheese sticks. Only one girl’s tray contained the broccoli mush.
While making my way around and talking with some of these students, I surreptitiously surveyed the number of chocolate v. white milk containers, the contents of the lunches brought from home, what was actually being consumed and the waste filling the garbage cans. Finding the subject matter less than appetizing, I maturely suppressed my prone-to-gagging inner child and focused instead on digesting my observations. I could not discern how this day’s menu was mixed up in any noticeable way from others. Certainly, it was no better.
During my drive home, my attention was grabbed by the news being broadcast about the tragic events unfolding in Japan in the wake of the 9.0 magnitude Fukushima earthquake and resultant tsunami. Suddenly, Mix It Up Day took on a new ironic meaning. I began to think of all the children who would not be having school lunch there on this crazy day or for many days to come.
Listening to the news, I remembered that I’d recently received an online article describing school lunches around the globe. I felt certain that Japan must have been one of the highlighted countries. This country of such rich food culture and ritual could surely challenge the widely held belief that we must serve kids low-quality food because that is what they will eat. I arrived home and found what I was looking for.
School lunch in Japanese is called kyuushoku. The lunches are all prepared in the schools, often by mothers of students who serve in this role on a part-time basis. The meals are eaten in the classroom with the teacher. All parents contribute to the cost of the school lunch program and are invited for lunch at times throughout the year. The children, clad in clean aprons, rotate the job of serving the food and no one can start eating until all have received their share. This is in sharp contrast to the chaotic, cacophonous cafeterias or “cafeteriums” that define school lunch programs in this country. Recently, I had asked a young girl what she thought about my coming to eat with her in the cafeteria. She astutely replied that I would get a headache.
In Japan, local foods are sourced with regional pride, children grow and harvest some of the vegetables that are used by the school, and everyone receives a printed menu that tells what food groups are provided by the meal. Typically provided foods include rice, rice noodles, miso soup with tofu, grilled fish, seafood stir fry, potato croquettes (korokke), stuffed omelette (omurice), daikon radish, sweet yams, bread, and milk. Forty-five minutes are allotted for lunchtime which is followed by recess. Kyuushoku is a well-planned, healthy, and respectful way of feeding the country’s children.
But now, in that topsy-turvy ravaged part of Japan, lunchtime will really be mixed up for millions of Japanese school children in a way more profound than whatever was intended by today’s menu makers. I pray that their bellies be filled with at least some warm rice or noodles. And, I honor the care and intention that defines how Japan tends to the feeding and nourishment of its young. It would serve us well to do the same.
Any school lunch experiences to share?
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In health, Elyn
If you are still considering how to donate to relief efforts, please check out the Save the Children website at http://www.savethechildren.org. (inactive link)
My Plate Haiku
Did you really think
That you could hide fish in rice?
Oh, the green paste burns.
by Francesco Marciuliano
from I Could Pee on This and Other Poems by Cats