No matter how hungry I was, I always dreaded the lunch period during elementary and middle school. It was either unpalatable food stuff processed beyond recognition, whose quality was on par with a meal that I had at a Texas prison. Or, it was leftovers that my mom packed for us. Neither alternative was appealing to me at the time. As much as I loved my mom’s cooking, eating then unknown Vietnamese dishes while my classmates nibbled on their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches was excrutiatingly embarrassing. I squirmed every time I opened up my lunchbox, trying desperately not to draw any attention to the strong odors emanating from the container of dishes such as pork belly stewed in fish sauce or from the thermos full of sweet and sour fish soup. It was already uncomfortable enough growing up and going to school in a town where diversity was still a novelty and being different was not lauded. So, eating foods that deviated from the norm only added another layer of discomfort.
Kids still don’t seem too enthused about school lunches today in spite of the passing of legislation aimed at improving the nutritional content of public school meals in 2012. Chef Daniel Giusti, whose resumé includes stints at Alinea and as head chef at Noma (crowned world’s best restaurant multiple times), is looking to change that. He left behind the world of haute cuisine to pursue a mission of transforming the public school cafeterias by introducing higher quality foods prepared by professional chefs. Initially, the kids did not take to the dishes that he served, but he is starting to gain a better understanding of the kids’ tastebuds. As he adapts his dishes to the kids’ preferences, they are starting to warm up to the different flavor profiles that he’s injecting into their lunches.
Naturally, I’m in favor of kids eating more nutritious foods made from scratch, but I wonder how sustainable are the menus served by chef Giusti’s company, which is for-profit. Also, how far-reaching does he intend his brand of school lunches to be? Is this the type of luxury that only students from middle to higher income families would benefit from, given that the budgets of schools in low-income neighborhoods may be too strained to even provide adequate textbooks for their students?
Though I applaud Giusti’s efforts, I don’t think that changing the school lunch menus alone is enough to address the problems of unhealthy eating habits and childhood obesity. These nutritious meals should also be paired with food literacy development by increasing the kids’ awareness of how foods are grown/raised, where it comes from and how it is prepared. For instance, Alice Waters’s Edible Schoolyard Project integrates food education into the academic curriculum, and the kids not only tend to the gardens growing the fruits and vegetables that go into their meals, but they also learn how to prepare the meals themselves. This hands-on food education would likely have a more lasting impact than simply serving meals that kids may not necessarily have a taste for.
What are your thoughts on public school lunches in the US?
You can read more about chef Giusti’s endeavor at Food Republic.