This week I’m blogging about school lunches in Italy. This is the seventh, and last, post in the series. If you’re interested, start from the top.
In summary, what have I learned?
- Many Italian kids leave school before lunch and eat lunch at home.
- The kids who eat at school (mostly preschool and elementary school students) typically eat a school lunch and there’s only one choice on the menu.
- There’s a significant movement of schools working to improve the quality of school lunches by procuring ingredients from “controlled chains” such as from organic and/or local agriculture. This movement is more concentrated in the northern regions of Italy.
- The fraction of children who are overweight in Italy is close to that of the U.S. (close to one third of children in both countries). Obesity rates are higher in the southern and central regions of Italy in comparison to northern regions.
- Italy’s youth is increasingly eating more fast foods and becoming disconnected from traditional Italian food customs.
I’ve covered a lot of data on something that’s hard to measure — what people eat. To be honest, my head is spinning a little. It feels convoluted to spend so much time thinking about what kids eat at school when a large percentage of Italian kids don’t eat lunch at school. And it feels convoluted to discuss how much school food is organic when there’s no conclusive evidence showing that eating organic food makes people healthier.
Here’s what I can tell you:
I was intrigued that most of the school lunch programs serve all of the kids the same meal. I wonder if this one-size-fits-all approach would fly in the U.S. with the large number of picky eaters, food allergies, the ethnically diverse population, and the American have-it-your-way mentality. I can certainly see the benefit of offering less choice: with fewer menu items, it’s easier to seek out the best quality ingredients, reduce costs, and cut down on waste.
The study on obesity in Italian 3rd graders showed that obesity rates are higher in central and southern regions of Italy in comparison to northern regions. It’s interesting to note that obesity rates are lower in northern regions where the number of schools serving organic food in the cafeteria is greater. Most likely, this isn’t a direct cause and effect as there are a great number of factors that play a role in obesity (economy, food access, agricultural policies, etc). Perhaps organic food in the schools is an indicator of other good things: a strong economy and agricultural policies that support small, local farmers who produce quality fruits and vegetables.
Though it’s a lovely idea, I doubt that Americans will ever return to a model where kids are sent home for lunch. Most parents are in the workforce and hardly anyone lives near their grandparents anymore. Maybe 20 years from now, adults will work remotely from home, kids will attend virtual schools from home, and families can join around the lunch table again. In the meantime, we need to figure out how to implement the lessons that were taught around the family dinner table of yesteryear into the school day– using lunchtime not just to fill bellies, but also to educate kids on what to eat, how to eat, where food comes from, and how to be social. Just giving kids a healthy meal one time a day isn’t going to keep them from becoming obese. We need to educate them on how to make healthy food choices so that they make good choices when no one is watching.
In my opinion, Italy is just behind the U.S. in the obesity epidemic and just ahead of us in the movement for school lunch reform. I hope because they had a delayed start in the first and a head start in the latter, the obesity-related health crisis won’t spiral as badly out of control in Italy as it has in America. Italy is fortunate to have a history of strong food traditions; they have somewhere to be guided back to when they get off track. Us Americans have the added work of defining what we want our food traditions and local food economies to look like with the many flavors of our ethnically diverse melting pot to work with (I’m sensing the less-choice-is-sometimes-better theme again). I hope Italy can learn from our mistakes before too much damage is done. I hope the U.S. continues to learn from Italy’s best practices, both in creating a culture that celebrates good food and getting good food back into schools.
I learned a lot putting together this series and hope you enjoyed reading it. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment or send an e-mail to ciaobolognaitalia [AT] gmail. I’d also love to collect some pictures of what kids are eating for lunch in Italy (either at school or at home). If you have any photos you’d like to share, please send them my way.
Photo credit: Screenshot from Teaching Channel’s “How They Do It in Rome: Nutritious School Meals.”