A Defense of American School Lunches, Or: We've Got It Pretty Good Here

Delicious AND Patriotic
Delicious AND Patriotic
Photo by Ben+Sam

If there's anything that the Internet loves more than talking shit on America, it's following pointless trends and meme-blasting the hell out of them until they're just one more Bad Luck Brian, to be picked clean by 9Gag or Cheezburger.

So, Por que no los dos?

Case in point: International school lunches. Amateur punsters and anti-patriots are stumbling upon ornate bentos, highly varied and inventive lunch trays, and overall just pretty-looking things on plates claiming to be from some school someplace that's not here, and slapping innovative captions about America's supposedly atrocious sense of taste and climbing obesity rates.

Except, my fellow Americans, dig around in your brain pans for a moment -- were your lunches really all that bad?

Sincerely, of course, no cafeteria-concocted tray-based combination of food groups is ever going to match up to Mama's Home-Cooked Gourmet, and neither of those can compare to the trans-fatty goodness you'll be served up at your local hipster gastropub, but if I recall correctly, school lunches here in the States were actually pretty rad. I mean, let's be real -- where else in the world can you get Double Stuffed Pizza on Monday, Taco Boats on Tuesday, and a Breakfast Platter (FOR LUNCH) on Wednesday? It's a paradise of variety, which, as the cliché goes, is the spice of life.

But all that aside, let's say you could give a good goddamn about variety -- maybe you could have a lunch of steamed rice, Toriteri and musubi every day for the rest of your life. Or maybe you're siding with the extremely popular European position that Americans are fat-fatties and school lunches should be a matter of national security.

I'll allow that last notion especially -- American cuisine is, by and large, not the healthiest, especially when you stack it up with cultures that have a traditionally stronger focus on vegetables, rice and seafood, as opposed to enriched flours, dairy, and bovine protein. That's just the name of the game, but clearly that's not all that's going on over here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave - after all, we don't all suffer from type-two diabetes... just like everybody in France isn't skinny as a rail and fit to pedal the Tour (although I have it on good authority that the pencil moustache and beret are mandatory over there, even for women).

No, the web's recent obsessive clamoring for the school lunches of other cultures isn't just about curiosity, calorie-counting, or relative health and political implications -- in truth, it's outliers that are to blame.  

Seriously though, try eating this for eight weeks straight
Seriously though, try eating this for eight weeks straight
Photo by Cali4Beach

I lived in Japan for 8 weeks, Korea for 2 -- you think every single tray of kimchi and fish stew looks like it was handmade to be posted on some douchey foodie's Instagram account? No way, José. But check out Buzzfeed's article on "School Lunches From Around the World" -- the photos from Asian and European countries all have mysteriously perfect lighting and composition, and the meals appear to be as yet untouched by grubby little student fingers. Yet when we scroll down the inane listicle and get to America, surprise surprise: overhead shots at shitty angles, lit by fluorescents and already half-eaten.

It's the same reason that when the subject comes up and you're shown a few pictures of the shittiest lunches in the poorest parts of America stacked up against four-star meals from Europe's elite preparatory schools, you're going to conjure up memories of some of the less-than-savory lunch trays to dance across your childhood -- it's a little thing called confirmation bias. You recall information that fits the current framework you're going for, rather than things that contradict it, because your brain's not too big on cognitive dissonance.

But I'm not getting up on the pulpit to decry health reform; quite the opposite. The truth is that when your Congress tries to claim pizza or ketchup is a vegetable, there are quite a few hurdles you've yet to overcome. So no, America doesn't have the best school lunch program, or even the prettiest, but who else does tater tots like we do? Where else can you choose between chocolate and regular milk?

It's okay to admit that our diet needs improving and still love the lunches you grew up with, and I'm sure if I stalked around America's finer public schools with a DSLR and some food-grade tongs I could make those less-than-healthy midday meals look just as appetizing as any fine dining.. and it might even taste better.

So next time that obnoxious friend of yours who doesn't understand how awful Upworthy is shares a video about "Jaw-dropping" lunches around the world, do them a favor: heat up one of those microwave corn dogs and pass them the ketchup.

The proof is in the pudding, and I'm sure they're serving cups of tapioca.

You can follow Ryan Cady on Twitter @rycady! Also, follow Stick a Fork In It on Twitter @ocweeklyfood or on Facebook! And don't forget to download our free Best Of App here!


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