In the United States, what children are served on their plates has become a hot issue, especially with Michelle Obama’s push to make nutrition a priority in America. Here’s a look at what students across Asia are putting on their plates.
I work in a Korean elementary school. Each day at 12:20 I hurry down the teacher’s dining room with eager anticipation. In South Korea, school lunches are a huge leap above the processed smattering of brown and grey matter that’s slapped on the plate in many schools in North America. My previous school was a kindergarten where the teachers would eat with the students, and it was not uncommon to hear a student holler out the phrase “ojingo jom do juseyo!” which translates as “more squid please!”. Are children really asking for more tentacles on their plate?
Thanks to government mandated school lunch programs in Seoul and other parts of Korea, it seems that there is a huge cultural shift in perspectives on food. While not all Korean food is healthy, a much higher percentage of it certainly is. And it seems to be those healthier choices that are most often put on the plates of Korean children. About once a month the school will serve an “American Lunch” which consists of french fries, hotdog derivatives, and other such garbage. It’s the only time I ever hear the children complain about what they eat.
Korean school lunches, like many other meals in Korea, follow a certain formula. Rice and kimchi are guaranteed. This is usually coupled with one or two vegetable sides, such as lotus root, eggplant, radish, bean sprouts–and the list goes on. Then there’s the protein, which is frequently fish, octopus, or squid, but also includes beef, chicken, duck, pork or tofu. Not fried, not battered. Meats are most frequently cooked by stewing or boiling. In Korea, the stovetop is king.
Elsewhere in Asia the trend seems to be similar.
Rice is a given no matter where you go, but there’s a great variety beyond that. In Japan, for example, there seem to be more fried options. Although deep fried foods like tempura or donkatsu are more common, portions of these fattier foods are limited to reasonable sizes, and aren’t served daily. As in Korea, the color green makes an appearance much more often than in North American lunches, in the form of seaweeds, vegetables, or roots. In China and Taiwan, the story is similar. The variety of vegetables on offer varies, as does the method of preparing fish and meats, but the basic formula of rice, vegetables and a protein stays the same.
Unfortunately, school lunches in many parts of the United States are abhorrent. You can tell immediately from the colouring: browns, beiges, greys, and a disproportionate amount of fried foods, processed meats, and salt sponges. But it’s getting better. The White House recently implemented new regulations that more than double the amount of fruits and vegetables on children’s plates and limit the amount of calories in a single meal. Kids are in an uproar about the changes and have been protesting and complaining about the shift. They complain that the newer, healthier meals are bland and unappealing.
Well of course they are. They’ve been stuffing french fries into their faces for their entire lives.
With a 17 percent obesity rate among children in the United States, there’s no arguing with the fact that something needs to change in the system, and slowly, it’s happening. But it’s hard to raise children on salt, corn syrup, and fat, and then expect them to get excited about a vegetable. It’s not going to happen overnight. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from almost three years of Korean school lunches, it’s that taste buds do adjust. There’s no shortage of MacDonald’s franchises in Seoul, yet grounding children with healthy choices from the start prevents them from developing bad habits at disturbing rates. I’ve seen children pass up cookies because they are too sweet. I’ve seen them order more octopus. I’ve seen them make better choices than I ever did.
Growing up in Canada, it was perhaps a worse situation in the United States. Canada, shockingly, has no national school lunch program. It’s one of the few developed nations in the world that doesn’t have a system in place. Instead, students either bring their own lunches, or they purchase them at the cafeteria, which is run by a third party for-profit corporation. So as a 12 year old, with no concept of my own health, I was buying pizza, hamburgers, or french fries for lunch every day. There were no healthy options that I can remember ever getting a glimpse of. How Canadians remain slightly less obese than their American neighbours is something of a miracle.
Hopefully, things will continue to improve in America, and perhaps Canada will wake up and realize that that universal health care would be much less costly in taxes if so many kids weren’t giving themselves diabetes before they hit high school. In the meantime, maybe Asian school lunches would be an excellent benchmark to strive for.
After all, when was the last time you heard a North American child asking for more squid?