Let’s Talk Food: School lunches around the world

Lunches at elementary school were memorable when I was growing up. Cafeteria managers had the freedom to be a bit creative.

Today, menus are set for the whole month. The only seasonal foods are “seasonal fruits.” Here is a week’s lunch menu for E.B. de Silva Elementary School:



• Chicken tenders

• Brown rice

• Shredded cabbage

• Boccoli and carrots

• Seasonal fruit


• Cheeseburger

• Whole grain bun

• Potato wedge

• Lettuce and tomato

• Seasonal fruit


• Crispy nachos with beef and cheese

• Garden salad

• Fruit juice


• Asian-style chicken

• Brown rice/whole grain roll

• Coleslaw

• Broccoli florets/baby carrots

• Peaches


• Fish wedge

• Brown rice

• Baked beans

• Rainbow salad

• Pom swirl

• • •

When we taught English in Lampang, Thailand, our school lunch would be stir-fried vegetables or a vegetable soup with bits of pork, served white jasmine rice.

When I asked why the school wasn’t serving brown jasmine rice instead, the teachers would tell us that the brown jasmine rice was only served to the prisoners. I had a difficult time understanding why the prisoners were eating a healthier rice than the students.

Today, brown rice is sold at markets.

The students were allowed to leave campus and would always find street vendors near the schools that sold sweets.

• • •

In Japan, lunch is similar to what is eaten at home and made from scratch. It is hearty and balanced, with rice and vegetables, fish and soups. The ingredients used for lunch are grown locally and almost never frozen.

According to the Washington Post, “Mealtime is a scene of communal duty: In both elementary and middle schools, students don white coats and caps (to) serve their classmates. Children eat in their classrooms. They get identical meals, and if they leave food untouched, they are out of luck: Their schools have no vending machines. Barring dietary restrictions, children in most districts can’t bring food to school, either, until they reach high school.”

Japanese children have one of the lowest obesity rates, and it has declined further during the past six years as Japan has expanded its dietary education program.

According to the Washington Post, “Children are taught to eat what they are served, meaning they are prone to accept, rather than revolt against, the food on their plates. But Japan also invests heavily in cultivating this mindset. Most schools employ nutritionists who, among other tasks, work with children who are picky and unhealthy eaters.”

According to Kimii Fujii, a school nutritionist, “we even make our own broth.”

• • •

In Finland, a typical lunch would be soup, porridges and porridge-type dishes. It might be vegan meatballs, baked potato, salad and muesli or chicken curry, salad, pudding, string beans and carrots. Interestingly, studies show Finnish students are among the highest-performing test takers in the world. Are the home-cooked meals using local ingredients helping these student do so well on tests? It helps that there is no pressure, as tuition from preschool to obtaining a Ph.D. is free.

• • •

Here’s a look at how school lunch is done in a few other countries:

• In France, school lunch might be fish and potatoes served with white wine mushroom sauce, spinach and cheese, bread and a salad.

Hungarian lunch could be vegetable and noodle soup, baked beans and chicken served with a side of bread and nuts for dessert.

• In Russia, breakfast is free and could be fresh sausage, buckwheat porridge and tea.

• In Israel, the government recently banned sugary, fatty foods from all schools. A typical lunch might be fresh fruit of grapes and apple slices, a sandwich with fresh eggs and a granola bar.

• In Korea, students and teachers eat together, which is very communal and befitting of their culture. “Banchan,” or side dishes, are often served. A lunch might be kimchi “jjigae,” a spicy soup with a bowl of white rice, fried lotus root and a sausage dish with sesame leaves, and a serving of kimchi. As education is very important, school can be open from 8 a.m.-10 p.m., so dinner also is served.

• The school lunch program in India is free, feeding 120 million schoolchildren every day and employing 2 million women. India’s school lunch can include aloo, palak paneer, sambar and a dessert such as rassogala.

Brazil’s school lunches are part of the Local Farms to Children’s Plates program and the Zero Hunger Program. This program feeds 42 million children. The country is faced with two opposing problems: malnutrition and obesity. Poor children without access to sufficient, nutritious food, unfortunately, have access to junk food. The country is teaching children through school gardens to try to have them eat whole, fresh foods. Their typical lunch might consist of pork with mixed vegetables, black beans and rice, salad, bread and baked plantains.

• In Guatemala, there is a project to provide balanced meals for more than 500 indigenous children. Often, these meals are the only meal for them for the whole day. Breakfast can be fresh fruit and lunch might be a tortilla, a hard boil egg, tomatoes and fruit juice.

• In Sweden, lunch choices consist of one to three entree selections, sides and an all-you-can-eat salad bar. Lunches are provided to all the children free of charge.

• If you were in the U.K., lunch is called dinner and costs 2 pounds, or $2.81 U.S. dollars. The U.K. government is presently looking at ways to make their dinners better and are working with “Leon,” a chain of restaurants, to sell healthy fast food. Currently, their lunches might consist of sausage, mash and baked beans.

German lunch is the biggest warm meal of the day. A week’s menu in a German school might be carrot and orange soup, fried fish with potatoes and remoulade sauce, penne pasta with meat-based tomato sauce and Schwabian noodles, cheese and vegetables.

• In Spain, every meal has two courses, served family style in huge metal bowls. There are no lines and no trays. One dish might be paella, hot yellow rice (saffron) with carrots, peas, potatoes and pieces of salted cod of bacalao. Another course might be “cocido” a classic comfort food of broth, noodles, stewed chickpeas, garlicky cabbage and various meats. Dessert could be fresh fruit of apples, bananas, mandarin oranges, green grapes or melon.

• In Greece, breakfast and lunch are offered daily, with breakfast costing $1.50 and lunch at $2.50. I was surprised that Greek meals are very similar to ours. Lunch today, April 10, is taco in a bag or Italian grilled cheese, Mexican black bean salad, Mexican rice pilaf, chilled peaches and fresh fruit.

Foodie bites


• The Hilo Classic Food Show at Hawaii Community College is Friday (April 13). In preparation for the event, the Bamboo Hale is closed.

Email Audrey Wilson at audreywilson808@gmail.com.

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