How school lunch can change the world

This is part two in a week-long conversation with Jeannie Marshall, author of the brilliant Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products.

For those of you who missed yesterday’s installment, the book is part manifesto, part family story.  It’s about the disappearance of “real food,” as the title suggests, but more than anything, it’s about the value of  “food culture” in ensuring a healthy and sustainable food system for kids and adults alike. Jeannie’s easy-to-read style and chilling, clear-eyed marshalling of the facts makes it a standout among books about food and children.

Today, how Italian kids learn to love spinach and stinging nettles because of their school lunch. (For more on Italian school lunch, check out my interview with two Roman schoolchildren here.)

Check back all week for more from Jeannie Marshall and Outside the Box.

Q: In your book, you suggest that school lunch could be the factor that can change a food culture for the better. Tell me how you imagine this might work in Canada (or elsewhere).

Jeannie Marshall: School lunch is an amazing, though mostly squandered, opportunity. Children exert such an incredible influence over each other’s tastes, and that influence can be harnessed for the good of their health if children are allowed to eat a communal meal at school. There are destructive things going on in Italy at the moment in terms of food and children because of the influence of the food industry. But one thing that still works in most of the country is the school lunch program.

My son Nico is now going to a different school than the one I describe in Outside the Box, but the lunch is still set up in mostly the same way. He sits with his classmates and his teacher at a table set with placemats, napkins and cutlery. The teacher facilitates a group conversation and gently corrects their table manners while they eat. Just looking at the menu for today I can tell you that Nico and his classmates are eating pasta with tomatoes and basil for their first course, and then they will have a frittata with a green salad for a second course and pears for desert. The food is all organic and mostly local. The important thing here is that there is one menu. There are no choices, though the school will make exceptions for children with genuine allergies (but there are few).

The narrow streets of Trastevere

My son has learned to love spinach and stinging nettles at school. He feels the pressure not to be the only one complaining about the food and this makes him more likely to force down a few mouthfuls of something he hasn’t tried before and even feel receptive towards it. I can cajole him to eat new foods all I want and get nowhere. But when he sees other children eating oxtail soup or fennel salad, say, he will eat it too.

As parents we are always being told that we should make our children try a food before rejecting it, but I’ve never had any luck with that tactic. I’ve asked Italian parents recently about it, and they don’t do it either. Italian babies are introduced to everything through the “pappa” as soon as they are weaned. The pappa is whatever the rest of the family is eating for dinner pureed with a homemade vegetable broth and mixed with a dollop of olive oil and parmesan cheese. They do this early, before the children enter their food-resistance phase at around age two. Later these children sit at the table with their peers at school, with their extended families on weekends and with groups of family and friends in restaurants where they are offered a little of everything. It’s been in these environments were Nico has learned to love anchovies, sardines, clams, mussels, shrimps and seafood of all sorts as well as numerous vegetables.

I love red beets, but they are not used much in Roman cooking. Recently when I prepared them with a bit of gorgonzola and toasted walnuts and offered some to Nico, he dutifully ate a bite and informed me that they are “still disgusting.” He’s not going to learn to love beets through me because his culture doesn’t eat them. If we don’t change the culture, and school lunch is the best place to start, children will mainly want to eat what they see their peers eating. If that is fast food in family restaurants and processed foods in their lunch boxes, it’s what we can expect our children to want to eat as they grow up and become adults.

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Filed under Kids and food, School feeding, School kitchens, School lunch, What's for Lunch?

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