Anne Crescini

恐ろしい給食 (Scary School Lunches)

American school lunches are legendary around the world for being both unhealthy and gross. A couple of years ago, I went to the U.S. on a teaching and research sabbatical, and enrolled my Japan-born kids in the U.S. school system for the first time in their young lives. Since I am American and spent my entire childhood in American schools, you would think that I would have been prepared for the culinary onslaught coming on my kids, kids who were brought up on fish, miso soup and rice. Nothing could have prepared me for that, though. I was shocked at how shockingly bad it actually was. I’ll never forget the day my middle daughter Abby, who is crazy about salmon, said to me, “Mommy, how come there is never any fish in the school lunches?” Granted, we were in the mountains of Virginia, far, far away from the ocean, but like she said, there was never fish in the school lunches. Except maybe those frozen fish stick thingies.


So, if there is never any fish, what exactly does constitute a school lunch? Well, I can say that most of the time it was hot dogs, chicken nuggets, pizza, hamburgers, pasta, some mysterious meat loaf or meatball concoction, or tacos, which the kids say weren’t all that bad. Most if not all of the food was over processed and frozen, and not only was it not healthy, the kids didn’t even like it. This menu seemed to be on some kind of repeat cycle, and the same foods would appear over and over again. I am pretty sure that none of this stuff has ever made an appearance in a Japanese school lunch.


Since my kids couldn’t stomach the school lunches, they brought their lunches from home almost every day, except on taco day. Unlike in Japanese schools, where kids eat school lunch or starve, American kids have the option of bringing their lunch from home. I wish that I could say that I was a great Japanese mommy and made nutritious bentos for my kids everyday, but sadly, that was not the case. I was both busy and lazy, and I found myself making and sending mostly crap (by high Japanese standards of food) with my kids to school everyday. I was packing ham sandwiches, chips, fruit, some kind of processed fruit snacks, and the worst offender of all, that juice wannabe, pure sugar evil called Capri Sun. I felt like a horrible mom packing such junk for my kids, until one day Riz and I went along as chaperones from kindergartner Emmy’s school picnic. I was shocked at the kinds of stuff those kids were pulling out–donuts, chips, Lunchables (that should not even be allowed to be called food), candy, Capri Sun, chocolate. hamburgers. It was almost like these 5-year old kids had packed their lunches themselves. Who knows? Maybe they did. It was at that point that I realized that what would be considered criminal activity among Japanese moms (packing a sandwich and chips) was actually one of the healthier food choices in Emmy’s class. It was that day that I understood why half the kids in her class were overweight.


Japanese kids don’t really have a  lot of likes and dislikes like American kids do. They eat the school lunch, like I said, or they starve. As a result, most kids in Japan like most things, and if there is something they don’t like, well, they ask their teachers to give them less of it and they eat it anyway. Now, I am not a big fan of making my kids eat stuff that they hate to the point of gagging, like in the case of my Emmy with fish. She really hates fish, so I don’t make her eat it much at home, but when it makes an appearance in her lunch at school, she has to suck it up and eat at least a little. I would hate it if someone made me eat natto, so I can understand her feelings. At the same time, I think kids should be made to try stuff. I have seen kids in America who only eat pizza and macaroni and cheese, and their parents make two different dinners at night–one for the picky kids and one for the adults. I think this is crazy. Of course, I am not stereotyping the whole country, and I have many friends who refuse to do this, but I saw a lot of picky kids in the U.S. I think Americans are just overrun with choices, and so if there is something they mildly dislike they can avoid it


There was also breakfast at the elementary school for kids who got to school early, or who didn’t have time to eat at home. It was mostly sugar–sugary cereals, breads, pastries, fruit in syrup. When we had friends visit from Japan, the kids were so excited that they got to come to school for a day to see what school life was like in America. I think eating the school breakfast was the highlight of their days, because they knew that it was their last opportunity ever to eat such outrageous foods at school. They scored again when the lunch was hamburger and fries. My Emmy, who has by far the biggest sweet tooth of all the Crescinis, loves sugary breakfast foods. We always told the kids they couldn’t eat breakfast at school, partly to save money and partly to save their teeth. So we always fed them at home before putting them on the school bus. Americans schools have this account system where you put money into a kid’s account online, then when they want to buy breakfast or lunch, they punch their number into a keypad and the money is deducted from the account automatically. One day, Riz was checking the kids’ account and discovered that Emmy’s was unusually low. He discovered that she had been sneaky, going behind our backs and eating breakfast at school–even after eating at home. Busted.


Geez, I am long-winded and this blog is getting way too long. Sorry about that. This is the last thing I want to say. One thing that I really like about American school lunches is the fact that parents are allowed to eat with the kids. Unlike in Japanese schools, where kids serve each other and eat in their classrooms, in American schools kids eat in the cafeteria. I don’t want to sound like I am criticizing everything, and I really liked that I could go eat lunch with my kids. There was nothing like seeing the joy on their faces when I came to eat with them. But one thing did shock me. I couldn’t believe that parents were allowed to take whatever they wanted–Pizza Hut pizza, Bojangles friend chicken, McDonald’s Happy meal–and eat it right there with their kids and their friends. I thought that was a little extreme, and I thought that most of my Japanese friends would spit out their French fries if they saw that.


It turns out that despite my total apathy towards cooking and way too many Capri Suns and fruit snacks, that my kids returned to Japan and their Japanese eating habits in relatively good shape. They quickly stopped asking for Doritos and sweet tea, and filled their tummies with rice balls. Despite my disdain for the school lunch system in the U.S, there were many aspects of the elementary school system that I was crazy about, the main one being the love, care and attention that the teachers at the school gave to my kids. Abby didn’t even know the entire alphabet when we left Japan, but she returned reading way above her grade level. But most of all, it was the hugs and kisses they got everyday in school that we miss the most. While Japanese schools educate my kids’ minds and feed their stomachs, sometimes I feel they do not do an adequate job meeting my kids’ emotional needs for encouragement. This is one area in which I think American school excel. So I am willing to overlook one too many ice cream cones considering they were loved deeply by their teachers for an entire year.



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