Sure, Toronto writer Andrea Curtis admits that she hates making school lunches for her 8- and 13-year-old sons. But her new book, What's For Lunch: How Schoolchildren Eat Around the World, is not a plea for some nice lunch ladies to relieve her of the chore.
The book is an ode to a meal that in many countries is a tool not only for fixing hunger, but also for nurturing culture and supporting sustainable-food production. Curtis lingers lovingly on the merits of a locally sourced, hearty national lunch programs such as Brazil's.
She also offers a compelling cross-cultural peek at lunch trays around the world. In India, that means a smear of dal on a humble metal tray. In France, it's a four-course delight. While she will not come out and slam parents who send their tots off with the packaged treats pictured in the Canadian section, in an interview she does raise the prospect that we – parents and schools alike – could be doing a whole lot better.
Why lunch? If you had told me when I was in elementary school that my lunch box would become this lightning rod, I wouldn't have believed it.
I frankly dread making lunch everyday. Every time I think that we've found something they'll eat and we're happy with they decide, they don't like it. Unpacking the lunch at the end of the day when half of the food hasn't been eaten is so demoralizing.
If I'm struggling so much with this, and here I am really interested in food and cooking and gardening and have done a lot of reading and thinking about the food system, what is everyone else doing? Is there a better way? I was amazed to learn that Canada is the only G8 nation without a national nutrition program for kids.
What do countries like India or Brazil have to teach us?
Sometimes the meals are subsidized on a sliding scale. In many places, it's offered free to every child. They understand there are enormous benefits. The corollary of kids not being hungry is that kids are able to concentrate and focus in school and they're healthier over all. In places like India, they will offer micro-nutrient fortification. In Afghanistan, school lunch is seen as an opportunity to get girls to attend: If they're provided a meal, there's an incentive for the family.
So, what's good or bad about the typical Canadian meal?
I heard it over and over from teachers in Toronto saying, "I see the kids who come to school with a Snackable or not enough to eat or not healthy food, and they are falling asleep in the afternoon. They don't have enough energy to focus." That's a greater concern than saying whether your sandwich is good or bad. I'd like to see a transformation of our system.
What would it look like?
It would be universally available, there would be a link between the providers of the food and the schools and there would be more focus on food literacy and taking lunch as an opportunity to talk about the environment and health. There would be an opportunity to enjoy the food rather than racing in and out.
But tired parents also complain about greater-good initiatives like litter-less lunches, which are more work.
I have no interest in the judgy stuff. Parents are trying really hard, and we all struggle and we have to make choices. I think the ideal is that we have a national nutrition program for kids. I see our government paying the costs down the road: in health-care costs, unrealized potential of the kids not eating a healthy meal, in the industrial food system that is destroying our planet. We can pay now or pay later.
What about the critics who say things like cooking classes and school gardens take away time better spent on English and math?
I've been involved in our school garden at my kids' school and they do math in the garden. I see the garden as an opportunity to learn about many parts of the curriculum. Creative teachers are embracing these opportunities.They measure out the plots and try to figure out how many seeds will go in. They do cooking; last year, we had a bumper crop of scapes and they made garlic scape pesto. The kids loved it.
It seems to me all those pictures of fish, borscht and lentils are also a stealthy way to show kids the huge variety of foods kids eat (roasted guinea pigs in Peru notwithstanding).
You can't help but understand something about the world when you see that kids in a refugee camp are getting a mug of porridge and in France they're getting a four-course meal. It's very much a cultural construct that children need kids' menus or that you have to serve them a special meal because they won't eat what we eat. I've done it too.
Which lunch do you want to eat?
I'd have Brazil. I like rice and beans. And there's mango on a stick in Mexico cut to look like a flower.
That's a little too close to the perfect bento box lunches out there that make moms feel bad.
I can see the attraction of colourful boxes that make it more fun. But I'm not going to be making a bento box with the face of Gene Simmons for my family. That's a little over the top for me.
So what did your kids take to school today?
Today was sandwiches. Yesterday was more interesting: pasta with tomato sauce. One had carrots, one had red peppers. One had grapes and one had oranges because that's what was in the fridge. Chocolate chip cookie. Water. My kids are thrilled if there's something homemade like a cookie or a muffin in there.
This interview has been condensed and edited.