In my research for What’s for Lunch? I read about many incidents of food poisoning in school lunch—including lizards and snakes found in the meal in India, and contaminated peanut butter in American lunches.
Last week, there was terrible news out of Peru that three children in an Andean village died and nearly 100 others were poisoned when their school lunch of rice and fish was contaminated with rat poison. Apparently, the container used to prepare the food had been previously used for mixing up a rodent-killing cocktail.
It’s a dreadful story and like other stories about food poisoning will make parents and children fearful about eating school lunch. (What it should really do is make governments, school food suppliers and regulators think carefully about what they are serving children.)
But I was interested to learn that a meal was being offered at all. Most Peruvian children aren’t given a hot lunch in their schools, despite the fact that there is a great deal of both poverty and malnutrition in the country. There is at least one government program offering a breakfast for school-agers of prepackaged biscuits and a fortified “milk-like beverage”—a supplement that apparently improves both school performance and attendance. There are also other, more piecemeal projects run by charitable organizations. But most children go home and eat a late afternoon meal with their family.
The lack of a school meal, I learned in my research, is mostly economic and political (there isn’t the money or the will), but also the challenges of universal feeding in a mountainous country and a response to a very specific cultural milieu.
I heard a lot about the link between food and culture when I was in touch with people at a fascinating Peruvian organization called PRATEC. Champions of indigenous Peruvian culture, PRATEC works with Andean communities to ensure that their history, language and traditions (of which food and agriculture is a huge part) are integrated into the school system (among other places).
For this organization, it’s all about altering the focus away from strictly “Western knowledge” toward valuing local knowledge. So children learn about traditional agricultural techniques and seed saving, they learn Andean songs, stories and recipes, they talk to their elders to ensure their culture is passed on—instead of passed over.
The “milk-like beverage” and fortified biscuits of the school breakfast program, for instance, while possibly improving attendance, is hardly the kind of breakfast Andean people have been serving their children for thousands of years. And if families were asked, they would no doubt tell a quite different story about their children’s nutritional needs—rooted in their experience, traditions, lifestyle and connection to what grows on their land.
These highly packaged, processed offerings may make sense in emergency situations, but PRATEC and others would no doubt argue that they’re not appropriate for children—Andean or otherwise— over the long term.
PRATEC’s story (and that of the Peruvian school lunch tragedy) is a reminder that school lunch is about so much more than just filling bellies. It can promote or deny a community’s culture, it can convey to kids that they matter—or that they don’t.
(I’ll be back with more on this when I look at the Home Grown School Feeding project in Ghana soon.)