We're all for Americans not screaming about their inherent superiority, but equally misguided are wide-eyed speculations that Not Americans do everything better, and if only we could do things their way, we might finally lead perfect lives full of bliss.
What it amounts to is the cultural equivalent of benevolent sexism, "myths of the noble poor generated by the middle class," or Philip Larkin's notion that the pill [link to birth control pill article] was the end-all, be-all of sexual liberation—that is, ideas that are appealing, but ultimately false. No people are perfect. No place is Utopia.
Still, the idealizing continues, all while glossing over certain facts that don't fit the appropriate narratives. One recent example of this came a couple of years ago, when pictures that were supposed to depict school lunches from around the world went viral, setting social media alight with criticism for the United States' comparatively blah fare. Of course, that wasn't the whole story—it never is—so here are lunches from eight different countries, explored:
"Children in Greece have baked chicken with orzo, stuffed grape leaves, cucumber and tomato salad, yoghurt with pomegranate seeds and oranges," gushes a 2015 Daily Mail article shared nearly 9,000 times, dramatically (how else?) titled, "The school lunches that shame America: Photos reveal just how meager US students' meals are compared to even the most cash-strapped of nations."
When I visited debt-riddled Greece in April 2012, there were marchers protesting austerity cuts, and a retired pharmacist, in a state of economic desperation, took his own life outside the Greek parliament in Athens.
As food policy and children's advocate Bettina Elias Siegel points out in a post titled "Why I’m Fed Up With Those Photos of 'School Lunches Around the World'" that appears on her blog, The Lunch Tray: "According to a 2013 New York Times piece—notably entitled 'More Children in Greece Are Going Hungry'—Greek schools actually 'do not offer subsidized cafeteria lunches. Students bring their own food or buy items from a canteen. The cost has become insurmountable for some families with little or no income.'
"So I’m not sure who’s getting the lunch above, replete with fresh pomegranate seeds and just-picked citrus. But I do know that while Greek school kids were reportedly going hungry in 2013, over 20 million economically distressed kids in this country were being fed nutritious, federally subsidized meals every single school day."
Indeed, when I taught English in a Madrid elementary school, students weren't eating school lunches. They only had midday snacks (usually small things like cookies, juice, or fruit, but sometimes a more substantial bocadillo) brought from home that would tide them over until la comida, most Spaniards' largest meal, which they'd have with family after the school day had finished.
But, according to the Daily Mail's article: "Children in Spain start their meal with cold tomato soup, gazpacho, served with shrimp and brown rice. This is served with a seeded roll, peppers with red cabbage and half an orange for dessert."
Really, Daily Mail? All of them? Are you sure about that? Last I checked, Spain was in a pretty deep economic crisis as well, which was exactly why people like me were being recruited there to teach English and help Spanish citizens become more marketable in other parts of the world. And in 2012, The Telegraph reported that Spanish parents were being charged a three-euro fee for sending their kids with packed lunches (a charge they deemed, understandably, "barbaric").
But sure, who knows? Maybe five years later, all of the schoolchildren are being served shrimp for lunch on the government's tab.
Is there anyone Americans love to romanticize more than the French? Specifically, we love to fetishize French women and then spin that fetish into a book, like Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.
We love consuming French wisdom almost as much as French butter! Like, for example, that of internationally best-selling author Mireille Guiliano, who brought us "French Women Don't Get Fat." Unfortunately, these narratives can gloss over some of the more sinister implications of uniformly thin women and perfectly behaved little ones, such as women shamed into stricter eating habits and abusive parenting tactics.
But if there's one stereotype that is difficult to argue—and whose merit seems unequivocally intact—it's the superiority of French food, both in taste and quality. Although students may not be eating exactly what's described in Daily Mail as the typical French school lunch ("a juicy steak and a hunk of brie"), they are almost certainly eating better than American students.
"French school meals are superior to ours–quelle suprise!," writes Siegel. "According to [one] report, the amount spent on the food in French school meals can exceed two dollars—twice what American districts are left with after overhead."
Then again, even French kids aren't above the occasional lunch of chicken nuggets.
Ah, dear, shamed Land of Liberty, home of freedom and fries. Our eating habits are the source of much derision from Americans and non-Americans alike, and with continued health concerns over increasing obesity despite our best efforts to stop putting on pounds, some concern is in order.
Perhaps, counterintuitively, our last hope is the fat acceptance movement, like the unexpected answer to a riddle? As Fran Hayden writes in The Independent, "Negativity begets negativity. …Fat acceptance does not encourage people to be unhealthy: fat acceptance gives people the opportunity to cast off those constant negative jibes. It offers a space where fat people are allowed to be comfortable with their bodies, and to work from there–whether that means maintaining the same shape or changing it."
One thing is clear: The kidlets have not been pleased with former FLOTUS Michelle Obama's efforts to put our country on the healthy track. As BuzzFeed News reports, "The USDA guidelines implemented over the last few years include limits on calories, fat, sugar, and sodium for all food and drinks sold during the school day for 100,000 schools across the country."
The result? Some students went to social media to express their distaste, posting photos of their lunches with the hashtag #thanksMichelleObama.
It was this phenomenon that provided the perfect frame for the Daily Mail and all the other outlets who recycled the narrative that American school lunches were exceptionally grim. But of course, not all American school lunches are drab and terrible. As with all the other countries, what's served varies from school to school.
The company responsible for the international-school-lunches photo essay that went viral is Sweetgreen, a chain of mostly East Coast health-food eateries. And as Mother Jones confirms, "those sumptuous photos don't depict actual meals being served in actual schools—but, rather, staged shots that oversimplify a complex topic. As it turns out, Sweetgreen...produced the photos, but didn't make that clear on its Tumblr."
That said, it looks like their depiction of South Korea's lunches was pretty spot on. The produced lunch features milky fish soup, stir fried rice with tofu, broccoli, peppers, and kimchi.
Travel blogger Natasha Gabrielle wrote last year about her experiences with school lunches while teaching in South Korea. She tells the Huffington Post: "There are a few things about Korean school lunches that tend to stay the same—there is usually a soup and rice served with each meal. In addition to this, there is quite a variety with the types of foods that are served. In many Korean meals, banchan, or side dishes, are served. This may be kimchi, radishes, or a mixture of vegetables."
You can sign me up for the Finnish model of school-lunch noms. Sweetgreen's interpretation of their school lunch is bright and beautiful—a veggie-rich display including pea soup, carrots, beetroot salad, a crusty roll, and a crepe topped with berries—and seems to hit the mark.
Finland earned the No. 1 spot on Tabelog's list of "Best 10 School Lunches From Around The World." The article, published in 2016, says:
"According to regulation, school meals must be 'tasty, colorful, and well-balanced.' Serving portions are also specified, with vegetables covering ½ of each child’s plate, protein taking up one ¼ of the plate, and starch filling up the last ¼ of the plate. Meals are provided free of cost to all children, regardless of family income or status."
One 2017 Food Republic article even raises the question of whether the country's school lunches might be partially responsible for its students' testing abilities, which are among the best in the world.
Sweetgreen's staged Brazilian lunch contains rice and black beans, baked plantain, pork with peppers and cilantro, green salad, and a seeded roll. While we're not sure how close this gets to the majority of Brazilian lunches, the country does appear to have their school-lunch s*** together.
Apparently, Brazil's school meal program is also serving to help the country's small farmers. In 2009, a law was passed that required cities to spend at least 30 percent of their school meal budget on local farmers' produce.
The country comes in at No. 7 on Tabelog's "Best 10 School Lunches From Around The World" list. Tabelog reports:
"Meals are considered to be compulsory for all students, and lunch times are treated as part of the student’s curriculum. While meals are not usually complicated or fancy, they are generally healthy and well planned. Staples are largely composed of rice and beans, cooked in many different ways. Fresh vegetables are always served alongside. Meat is locally sourced, but not offered at every meal."
This might come as a surprise to those used to ingesting the stereotypes about flavorless, unimaginative, and pallid English food—or anyone who associates the U.K. with boiled potatoes and sausages—but the United Kingdom earned the No. 10 spot on Tabelog's "Best 10 School Lunches From Around The World" list.
Sweetgreen doesn't offer their version of U.K. school-lunch fare, but Daily Mail offers up a picture of a kid holding a tray "sadly lacking in fresh vegetables, featuring a baked potato, sausage and beans from a tin, and a half corn on the cob with a melon slice to follow."
But that may be an unfair representation. According to Tabelog:
"The push for healthier school lunch in the UK really began in earnest after celebrity chef Jamie Oliver decided to create a television program he called Jamie’s School Dinners. At the time most food served in UK school was deep fried and rather unhealthy. Items such as pizza, chicken nuggets, and deep fried chips were common. The TV show brought the issue to the forefront of the public mind, and families began to push for healthier options. The push continues, and schools are working hard to provide their students with high quality meals."
Nutty as it sounds, maybe what Americans need to remedy their fraught relationship with food is another reality television show. But that's probably not the answer.