An interview with Andrea Curtis, author of What's for lunch? How schoolchildren eat around the world
How did people react when you told them you´re writing a book about school meals?
Here in Canada, where 90% of kids bring a packed lunch to school from home—we’re one of the only industrialized nations in the world without a nutrition program for school-aged children—there is a lot of interest from parents, educators and even children in what kids eat at lunch. There are many kids who don’t have a healthy meal (either because their family can’t afford it or as a result of the less-than-nutritious processed foods that are everywhere) and teachers and parents know that it’s harder for these kids to concentrate and focus on their work. So the reaction was really positive. Many Canadians, especially those interested in the politics of food, tell me they see What’s for Lunch
?—with its stories and pictures about how other children eat around the world—as a way to draw attention to the inadequacies of our own system.
In your book you highlight the Brazilian School Feeding Programme (Programa Nacional de Alimentação Escolar, PNAE) as being particularly impressive. What for you stands out about PNAE?
The Brazilian intention of offering meals free to all children emerged in my research as both important and inspirational. In many countries, there are subsidies and a sliding scale for different income families, but making school meals available to everyone—no matter their income status—changes everything. Universality takes the stigma out of school meals and ensures that the entire country is in it together. I see wide-ranging economic, social and cultural benefits. I’m also interested in Brazil’s local procurement policies (the 30% minimum requirement) and the way that school feeding is integrated with other government policies related to food access, economic development and, of course, ending hunger and poverty.
Brazil is just one of many countries that you look at. In your view what are some of the best practices for school feeding around the world, and what could PNAE learn from the programmes of other countries?
Local procurement policies are essential to embedding school meals into the economy and encouraging sustainable practises. But I’ve also been very interested to see how nations with strong food cultures ensure that those cultures are fostered and protected through school meals. In Japan, for instance, school lunch or kyushoku is seen as an opportunity to learn about Japanese values, traditions and history—even the teachers and principals sit down with the children to share the meal. In France, children are offered a four-course lunch (including a cheese course!) served on porcelain with proper cutlery. School meals are treated as an opportunity to teach manners, the pleasure of food and to cultivate the sense of taste. I think fostering a positive food culture that encourages respect for the environment, for other people, and food itself is a powerful way to create more a sustainable, equitable and nurturing food system.
Is the emphasis that is sometimes placed on nutritional education a luxury that only richer countries can afford? Or is it wrong to make the distinction between feeding and nurturing?
There are times of emergency when almost any food is good enough for a short period—during the heat of war, natural disaster, etc. But I think we all need to strive for something better than emergency rations devoid of taste, culture and pleasure. Children in developing nations should have all the opportunities that children elsewhere enjoy. Nutrition education is part of this. To alleviate anemia, for instance, we need to ensure children are offered food that is rich in iron, but we also need to talk to them about why it’s important, so they can pass it on to their parents and their own children as they grow older. But I also think food literacy needs to be more than just education about nutrients, micronutrients and food groups, educators should be talking with children about where food comes from, who grows it, how it’s grown, the politics of agriculture and the world of processed food. We have a deeply interconnected international food system, so these issues touch not just those in wealthy nations but people everywhere. In fact, you could easily argue that it’s the poor who benefit least in our current food system. Shouldn’t they have a chance to learn about how the system works and why? It seems to me that talking to children and helping them make the links between their food, their lives and those of people in the world around them is one of the very best way to truly transform the system so that it’s sustainable and just. I was really inspired by some groups in Peru that are working in collaboration with indigenous people to reclaim their food culture, language and traditions in part by connecting schoolchildren with elders in their communities who remember the old agricultural techniques and knowledge of plants. This is the kind of food education I’m talking about and it’s no luxury, it’s a necessity.
Here at the WFP Centre of Excellence we spend a lot of time trying to persuade low and middle income countries of the great value of taking national ownership over school feeding programmes (in boosting school enrolment, attending to gender inequalities, addressing child malnutrition, etc.). The audience for you book, however, also includes people in your country and other high income countries. What have they to learn from reading about school feeding?
I think that how a nation approaches school feeding reveals a great deal about its values and priorities. Whether it’s in Brazil, where ending poverty and hunger is a national goal, or Japan where maintaining food culture is key to the island nation’s identity, school meals act as a lens into these countries. I hope that for readers in Canada and the U.S., especially, seeing less wealthy countries putting an emphasis on healthy, sustainable school meals will urge citizens to rethink what they consider important and push school meals more seriously onto our national agendas.
What would be on your ideal school lunch plate?
The ideal school meal obviously depends entirely on the country where it’s served. For me, living in Canada where we are in the middle of our harvest season, I’d like to see children offered a hot lunch with vegetarian options, maybe pasta with fresh tomato sauce and parmesan, some roasted seasonal vegetables like squash, sweet potato or corn on the side, plus fruit for dessert and as much water as the children want. I’m a firm believer in the dictum: “Everything in moderation—including moderation,” so I think kids should also be offered treats occasionally at lunch. Maybe a homemade cookie or tart, or perhaps yogurt with maple syrup on top. Yum.
By Gerard Corvin /WFP Centre of Excellence against Hunger