I recently finished reading French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon. This is a story about Karen and her family and their one year living in a small village in France (they now live in Vancouver). Moreover, Karen focusses on le gastronomie, the food culture in France, learning as much through her children’s experiences as her own. It isn’t just about what they eat but how, when, and why they eat. Karen also discusses the cantines in French schools, where three or four course lunches are prepared for children from a very early age. This is an opportunity for children to learn about different types of foods, about table manners, and experimentation under the watchful eyes of their peers. The lunch is typically a starter salad, a main dish, a fresh baguette with cheese, and a dessert (usually fruit, with a sweet dessert once a week). Perhaps I would’ve learned to like grated carrot salad if I had been fed it from an early age…not to say that I’m beyond hope.
So anyways, while I was reading this book, memories of my lunch room experience in Japan came back to me. When I was in Grade 3, during a trip to Japan, I spent one week going to school there. I fondly look back on the experience now – how fortunate I was! – but I had mixed feelings about it when I was 8 years old.
The school lunch program in Japan is called kyushoku and it really is a remarkable thing when I think about it now. There are industrial-sized kitchens in schools (or there is a centralized kitchen that serves a few schools), where people come to cook lunch every day. That was already a strange sight for me; my school in Canada did not have a kitchen and a warm lunch was a rarity. The students take turns on kyushoku-toban (lunch duty), where they might help with final preparations of the food, fetching the food from the kitchen and carrying it to the classroom, passing the lunch trays around, then cleaning up after everyone has eaten. In the classroom, the desks are moved into groups of about 6 and everyone eats together, including the teacher. Everyone socializes together, making jokes, encouraging each other to eat things we might not like, and sharing stories and ideas. That was a strange experience for me as my teacher in Canada didn’t usually sit with the students at lunchtime. It’s actually pretty neat because you have an opportunity to interact with your teacher on a whole different level. Everyone also eats the same thing that is on the menu, which changes every day.
I have to mention that milk in Japan tastes very different from milk that I’ve tasted in North America. A different flavour and a different feeling in your mouth. I have never gotten used to it, despite having visited Japan many times (apparently I was just a few months old the first time I visited). Therefore, I distinctly remember the dreaded box of milk showing up with my kyushoku every single day. The popular milk to drink in Japan has about 3.25%MF, which for my skim-milk loving body was quite the difference; skim milk is largely seen as being for folks with dietary restrictions. I can’t remember if I drank my milk boxes. I do remember the teacher trying to convince me to finish everything on my tray, including the milk, and I also remember all of the other students around me drinking their milk…nothing like peer pressure to change your habits. The “I’m a foreigner” card might’ve been pulled to get out of drinking the milk but after reading Karen’s book, I appreciate the persistence required to teach children to eat something that they don’t like the taste or texture of.
The hankachi, or handkerchief, is an important item in Japan. For one, it’s a necessity if you’re using public washrooms as many do not offer paper towels. People carry a hankachi around with them wherever they go and they’re sold everywhere, from the dollar shop to high-end department stores. Students would use the hankachi as a napkin at their meal. I remember having pizza or hot dog day at my school in Canada and we went through a lot of paper towels on those days….
The school that I attended also had a little garden and coop on the school grounds where kids took care of the vegetables or the chickens/hens. This was one of the school chores that rotated amongst the classes. Again, this was a foreign concept to me as my school in Canada didn’t have a garden and it most certainly didn’t have animals kept on the grounds. Now that I’ve read a lot about the values of teaching kids where food comes from, how to grow food, and know when to harvest food, I don’t understand why all schools don’t have at least an edible garden!
In the end, I can’t recall what was served at each meal except that there was usually rice or bread (but not both!) and a bowl of miso soup, but I’m fairly confident that the meals would have been well-balanced to meet the nutritional needs of growing kids. I do recall there being things that I don’t like to eat, such as okra, and I remember refusing to eat it. Again, thinking about this now, I appreciate what a wholesome school lunch program can provide: an education on food that is hard to parallel outside of the school environment. My refusal to eat certain foods might have been barely passable as a temporary student in the classroom but it certainly would not have been okay if I had been a regular student. I think it’s great that students are taught to eat foods that they are not used to, even if they don’t enjoy it the first few times, and that they are taught to eat the same foods as everyone around them, instilling a sense of community.
Thinking about my lunch time experience in Japan and in Canada, the stories of Karen’s kids in her book, and the documentaries about the American school lunch program, I’m convinced that it is beneficial for students to actively participate in a school lunch program but I also appreciate that this is a complex issue. In France, there is a strong food culture that has engrained beliefs and habits that support their school lunch program structure. When I think of the same thing being applied in North America, I can just imagine the uproar about having one set menu per day. The mainstream values within the countries are quite different and either encourage or hinder the possibilities. Karen was forced to confront her core belief that choice is a good thing, a right in many North American minds, when her daughter was presented with a set weekly menu for the school cantine, and after self-reflection and discussions with those around her, concluded that having too much choice can be detrimental. She was also asked why there needed to be choice if the children were being served only delicious food? It’s a good point and we could learn something by applying that in our lives. North American cafeterias offer choice because we – as a society – value choice, but is it really offering us anything of value?