Memories of childhood school days inevitably lead to thoughts of lunches in the cafeteria — for better or for worse. Whether your school served up "prison food" or heavenly junk food, lunchtime was a chance to gather with friends to gossip and wreak havoc on a plate of fries and shared ketchup — or, if you were unfortunate, to be forced to give your lunch over to the class bully.
School lunches are a popular topic among state and national education and health boards in the United States, and schools are often criticized for failing to provide a balanced meal; parents and the public are continually promised changes to come. But despite the best efforts of people like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and British chef Jamie Oliver to highlight just how improperly fed students are and to attempt to change the system, most students in the U.S. are still living on unhealthy food that's somehow passed off as healthy, including shocking examples of fries and ketchup being considered a daily serving of "vegetables."
Even recent progress in the quality of foods being dished up according to the guidelines established by Michelle Obama in her healthy lunch campaign is being tested. The current rumble in the lunchroom being led by the first lady is against House Republicans and the School Nutrition Association. As she combats appeals about cost, food waste, too-rigid nutritional requirements, and timelines in regards to the program, setbacks seem inevitable. Sadly, American kids are the ones who will continue to lose in this food fight.
However, school students in many nations around the world don’t suffer from the same issues. Forget the mac and cheese, pizza slices, chicken nuggets, and soda. They're replaced by dishes like grilled fish (Japan), kimchi (Korea), and green pea soup (Finland), all delicious enough to entice kids to eat.
But it’s not all utopian outside the U.S.: globalization has a lot to answer for, with the extremely delicious but plainly unhealthy Americanized foods such as pizzas and fries creeping their way into school lunches around the world.
Considering the variety of beans native to South America, it is no surprise that legumes feature heavily on Brazilian school lunch menus. School lunches are actually served cost-free and, as in Italy, there is a focus on serving local, sustainably farmed produce, with the beans often accompanied by locally sourced greens and fruits, such as bananas.
In Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province in China, meals at universities are served up on sterling silver trays and cost two to three dollars. The lunches are primarily rice-based, complemented by vegetables, a type of protein (often fish or tofu), and sometimes soup, providing a healthy and affordable option to students. A typical meal consists of tomato and eggs, mapo dofu (bean curd with a spicy peppered sauce), cauliflower, and chiles served with a heaping pile of rice.
Catherine Stark is a special contributor to The Daily Meal. You can follow her on Twitter @casita02.