It’s always an exciting day when the postie brings a package, but receiving this box of the first copies of What’s for Lunch? was especially thrilling. It looks amazing, with Yvonne Duivenvoorden’s photos and Sophie Casson’s illustrations making the pages sing.
I’ll be promoting and launching the book in the fall for back to school but in the meantime, you can find it in certain stores now (also here) or you can preorder online from here or here and have it delivered to your door. (The book will be launched in the U.S. in November.)
Watch here for details about where I’ll be talking about lunch and what kids are saying.
I’ve been blogging about school lunch for more than two years now, so I figure it’s about time for a look back at the countries and the lunches I’ve explored around the world.
I’ve written a lot about Canada and the U.S. (check out the tag cloud if you’re interested in reading some of it), but I’ve also stopped on almost every other continent. Of course, there’s more—much more—in my book, What’s for Lunch? Watch for news about the upcoming publication date! Here’s a taste of some of the places I’ve visited on the blog:
On getting girls into the classroom with school meals in AFGHANISTAN.
What’s for Lunch in Brazil?
School lunch at the vanguard of ending poverty and hunger in BRAZIL (plus more here).
Lunch at a unique green school in BALI, INDONESIA.
Taste education and school meals in FRANCE.
From FINLAND with love: how school lunch contributes to producing some of the smartest kids in the world.
News out of Japan yesterday about the radioactive contamination of food in a wide area around the nuclear plant is terrifying. But not so much because of worries about international exports, as the article focuses on—that’s straightforward enough to shut down. Instead, it’s the people in Japan who are most likely to suffer its lingering effects.
And this when it’s already hard to get enough food to people in the affected areas. Second Harvest Japan, the first food bank in that country, has dedicated all of its resources to responding to the earthquake, funnelling food and funds to those in need. You can follow their actions on Twitter and their blog and/or make a donation to their relief efforts here.
(I was surprised to learn that even before the earthquake and tsunami 650,000 Japanese lacked food security and more than 50% of single parent families live in poverty. These people were in crisis long before the crisis.)
The World Food Program is also on the emergency food case, helping to provide logistical support and getting supplies to the affected areas “where some 350,000 people are estimated to be staying in 2,100 shelters,” according to WFP.
Unfortunately, none of this is going to go away soon. The scale of disaster is vast. But Japan has such a rich, interesting and well-established food culture (including one of the most intelligent school lunch programs I’ve seen in the world—see my posts about it here), its food system could very well prove as resilient as the people themselves.
This week, I sat down with my editor and looked at the first page proofs of What’s for Lunch? (my book on how schoolchildren eat around the world coming out next year). It looks fabulous (I’ll give a sneak peek sometime soon), and among other things, I was reminded (happily) that many countries around the world treat lunch as an occasion to be enjoyed and savoured rather than simply an unpleasant diversion from playtime (scroll down for this week’s post on the latter).
I thought it would be worth looking at how things work in some other countries:
•In France, 45 minutes is devoted to the eating part of lunch—plus playtime afterward.
•In Russia, teachers walk around the cafeteria making sure children eat using proper table manners (something they are taught in school!).
•In China, teachers also walk around and encourage kids to chew their food carefully and not be too noisy.
• According to a national survey called the School Health Policies and Practices Study, American children have an average of 22.8 minutes after sitting down to eat their lunch at school (I’ve also heard 7 minutes as an average—it’s probably somewhere in between.)
•In England, the School Food Trust publishes case studies under the title “Meal Experience.” From introducing special “meal deals” to getting children to create place mats to brighten the space to posting menus and having tasting sessions, many schools are working at making school dinners a social experience as well as a healthy eating one.
• In Japan, students serve the food and the whole class waits to eat until everyone is seated and served. Teachers and admin people also sit down with the children. (For more on kyushoku, see my posts here and here.) Before they begin, they chant Itadakimasu all together (one of many translations is “let’s eat!”—but it’s also a thank you to those who provided the meal).
The Japanese take their food very seriously.
So, of course, there’s a manga genre about food. Many, like Iron Wok Jan are based around Iron Chef–like cooking battles (and spoiler alert: very buxom women).
But Oishinbo or “The Gourmet”— Japan’s longest-running food manga series (with more than 100 million copies sold)—has a gentler narrative drive. It’s about food and our relationship to it.
The series tracks the adventures of anti-hero Shirō Yamaoka a culinary journalist searching for The Ultimate Meal.
Here’s Rob Vollmar at The Trouble with Comics on how it plays out:
In order to prepare this menu, Shirō Yamaoka and Yuko Kurita [his colleague who he eventually marries] are to travel around to different parts of Japan, sampling the local cuisine and comparing the relative merits and aesthetic differences between the various offerings. A rival newspaper has hired Yamaoka’s father, Yuzan Kaibara, one of the most venerated food and pottery critics in all of Japan, to prepare a menu of his own. Yamaoka is estranged from his father due to their inability to tolerate one another and, predictably enough, these food duels between father and son often take center stage as they contrast different ideas about cooking and eating across a broad range of different kinds of food.
It’s hard to imagine a graphic novel coming out of Canada or the US that treats food like this (please correct me if I’m wrong!), where food itself is the connective tissue—the thing that binds the story and the characters together.
It probably speaks to the fact that in contemporary Western culture, food is so often an afterthought—grabbed on the go, eaten alone—rather than the key cultural, social, emotional experience that it is in so many other cultures.
Still, the story clearly resonates—since Viz Media in the US started publishing Oishinbo
in English language versions
, North Americans have been eating it up
One of the things people often ask me about school lunches around the world is how the meals are funded. But there are as many different formulas as there are countries—everything from full government subsidy for everyone (universality) to international relief agencies providing the food, to fees more and/or less shared between parents and local governments.
In Japan (which I’ve been writing about all week), families and local governments share the cost. Parents of elementary school students pay an average of about $44. (Cdn.) per month for kyushoku (that’s approximately $2 a day). My friend from Osaka recalls her family paid $50 for her daughter a few years ago and when she was a child her own parents contributed $25/month.
According to a 2008 study produced by the UK’s School Food Trust, these fees cover about 1/3 of the cost of the meal; the rest is paid by local government. Help is also available for low income families who apply for subsidy (this no doubt will increase as poverty rates rise in Japan—something, according to this article, that is happening right now).
In addition to fees, Japanese schools ensure parental engagement by distributing a monthly menu highlighting where the food comes from as well as the calories and nutritional value of the dishes (dieticians create the menu). The government encourages schools and catering companies to source at least half of the ingredients locally. Parents also have a chance to participate in kyushoku taste tests twice a year! Sounds good to me—especially when the food is fresh, local and tasty.
A friend of mine grew up in Osaka, Japan. She’s been living in Canada for many years now but has fond memories of kyushoku (school lunch) from her own childhood, as well as from the year she and her family spent in Japan and her young daughter went to school.
Here she remembers one of the hazards of having kids involved in serving the meal:
“Once in a while (once a month? I don’t remember), there was an accident. Kyushoku-toban (the day’s servers) dropped a big pot of miso soup or tripped while carrying a big bin of grilled mackerel between the school kitchen and classroom. That was a tragedy. The servers had to visit other classrooms to ask to share some or offer up their leftovers. The students in that class finished lunch very late (it took time to collect 40 meals) and they’d often miss out on lunch recess!”
Being a major klutz myself (and the mother of a child who spills his milk at dinner. Every. Night.), I can empathize with the challenges this could present for teachers. But in the same way that I still let my kids pour their own milk (gritting my teeth, cloth in hand) because they need to learn to do it on their own at some point, having children involved in serving and carrying the school lunch pays long-term dividends. Children get a chance to see themselves as vital, contributing members of their community.
One of the countries in my upcoming book, What’s for Lunch? whose midday offering provides some of the greatest contrast to North America is Japan. There, school lunch is known as kyushoku, and it’s as much a part of the curriculum as science or math. Not only do children serve the food, teachers and administrators sit down with the kids to eat it. They practise respect, cleanliness (everyone joins in to clean up afterward) and proper eating habits.
What a difference from my own kids’ school where one of the lunchroom supervisors screams at the children if they leave their seat and they are barely allowed to speak during the meal. I often find the packed lunch uneaten and my older son says he just didn’t have enough time. This weekend, I overheard him advising his little brother (who will join him in the lunchroom next year) that he would be advised to keep his head down and not say a word if he doesn’t want to get in trouble. The little one looked terrified.
Daniel Ferguson, a roving kindergarten teacher currently in Fukuyama and Okayama Japan, also noticed the contrast from his last posting in the Southern US and has created a blog chronicling his lunch adventures—including (reluctantly) eating little fish whose bellies are filled with eggs. He was inspired by Mrs. Q, the amazing American teacher at Fed Up with School Lunch who’s been eating lunch at school every day this year in an effort to draw attention to the unhealthy and inadequate meals. She’s currently counting down the days until school gets out. I can’t wait to hear her end of year observations.