Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Women have bitten off more than they can chew with school lunch
Every five minutes a new study shows that, despite feminism’s glorious strides – nano-cosmetics, auto-erotic finances, caesars-on-demand (I’m not talking salads) and a truly wondrous array of silicone uplift gadgetry – women are less well off, less equal and (especially) less happy than before.
Why? We wonder. What can the matter be? Is it that rice pudding for dinner again? Well no, but it’s close. The answer to this ineluctable mystery is lunch, specifically school lunch. Do not adjust your set. The school lunch may be small – many might argue not small enough – but its challenges are deep and its implications resounding.
It is 50 years since William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, which title Kerouac later explained, rightly or wrongly, as “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”. And although neither writer can be accused of elucidating a lot else, Kerouac’s quip may explain why the humble school lunch is now curled like the foetal alien in the belly of modern Australian womanhood.
I mean, the kid has to be fed, right? You’re not actually allowed to let them starve, much as a spot of starvation may be just what the doctor ordered. And you can’t really lapse into the daily lunch order, although each class has at least one apocryphal member to whom this blessed condition pertains. “No, she does, honestly Mummy!” Followed by a sighing, wistful, “She’s so lucky.”
It’s different in Britain and the US, where school lunch is generally collective and systematised. As the political scientist Jennifer Rutledge notes, state intervention in children’s prandial intake has usually been driven by security fears; post-Boer, for Britain, and post-WWII for America, a war-heightened awareness of the need for healthy fighters. Here in Australia, however, lunch is personal. So are the fears.
School-lunch syndrome starts early. In the build-up to big school, daycare children practise bringing lunch and group-analysing what does or doesn’t qualify. They learn the food pyramid (carbs at bottom, fats on top) and all about fibre, freshness and the nuances of sharing, or not. All this they bring home to mummy.
For the next decade, give or take, the mummy-morning begins with lunch. And scary it is. Take one lunch box, plastic. Sure, there are paper bags, but a reusable box is eco-preferred. And with the box comes the compartment question.
Compartmentalisation is theoretically greener, since it allows less wrapping. But the frontline fact is that compartments are brutish to clean (and even if dishwashered, brutish to dry so they won’t sog the sandwich – unless said sandwich is separately plastic-wrapped, which rather destroys the point).
Compartments are also mis-sized for your orange, tomato or watermelon. They reject cutlery (which must therefore travel separately to that playground-of-no-return, thus necessitating throwaway plastic cutlery that is both eco-evil and has your kid chewing long-chain polymers on a quotidian basis) and even then fail to keep the passionfruit juice from the sanger.
Next decision, recess snack. It must be small, quick, high-energy and desirable – to your offspring but also to others. Never mind nutrition. Food is currency and a status symbol, and food-swapping, however discouraged, a crucial social ritual. The obvious answer to recess, barring processed snack food (the numbers, the packaging) is a homemade muffin or biscuit. But with Australian children now facing decreased life-expectancy for the first time in decades, mainly due to obesity, even this is hard to embrace.
Then, the sandwich. Of course, a sandwich isn’t mandatory these days. You can do pasta, sushi, risotto or Chinese dumplings, in your spare pre-dawn hours. But a sandwich is quick and at least lets you slide some fibre into the kid. But the bread must be not-too-brown and not-too-chewy. (I speak as someone who daily watched her best friend empty her lunch into a neighbour’s hedge on the way home). Lesson: the kid has to like it.
As to meat in the sandwich? Ham is off, due to the nitrites and other carcinogens intended to stop it going off, as is salami, prosciutto and the humble devon. Egg has social consequences for the child. Tuna ditto, not to mention consequences for the tuna (the southern bluefin being now critically endangered and dolphin-friendly tuna exposed as a myth).
Even roast beef is hard-hoofed, water-greedy and hormone-soaked. As to nuts, the dietitian’s preferred protein source? Nuts are a total no-no. Find the school that doesn’t go into anaphylactic shock at the mere whiff of nut-processing machinery.
Which pretty much leaves good old Vegemite. It’s yeasted, it’s salted and it can get terribly tedious but at least (so far) it doesn’t give you cancer.
Then there’s fruit and veg, which used to be a simple apple a day but now brings issues of size (it’s either small or it’s cut-and-go-brown); packaging (what, do cherry tomatoes and strawberries grow already plastic-boxed?); chemical content (pesticides in lettuce, strawberries); and food miles (can you happily give your child berries flown in fresh from countries that shoot other children?)
All this before the day even starts. Before you even get to the big issues, like why writing so domestic an article still up-statuses a man, and down-statuses a woman.