The U.S. gets a bad rap for school lunches for a couple of reasons. They’re not usually free, although low-income families may qualify for free or subsidized meals, and a handful of states, including California, Maine, Michigan, and more, have implemented free lunch programs since 2021.
American school lunches are also often criticized for their lack of variety and low health standards. School lunches are required to meet minimum nutritional standards, but these typically relate to factors like calorie ranges, the inclusion of whole grains, and a lack of trans fats. On the upside, fruits and vegetables must be served daily.
Within these parameters, the lunches students receive still vary widely by state and even city. How do other school lunches across the globe compare?
Scandinavian countries are well-known for a broad range of public funding and social services, and Sweden is no different. The country’s school lunches have become the stuff of online legend. For starters, all elementary school children receive school lunch for free.
What’s included? The main dish is typically a warm stew, and often, there are both meat and vegetarian options. Side dishes will include cooked vegetables, a salad bar, and some kind of carb, such as knäckebröd (crispy bread) or raggmunk (potato pancakes).
You don’t have to look far to find examples of exceptional Korean school lunches posted online. Although it’s common for students to bring their own lunches, some areas of the country do provide school lunches for free. Seoul, for example, offers free lunches for students from kindergarten all the way through high school.
These lunches feature several elements, typically including soup, rice, kimchi, a protein side dish (meat, fish, tofu), and a fruit or vegetable side. Schools often provide whole milk as well, either with lunch or earlier in the day. The focus on foods that are lower in fat and feature minimal processing is in keeping with Korean cuisine, on the whole.
You might be surprised to learn that school lunch is not well-supported in Australia. Traditionally, students were expected to bring their lunch or return home to eat during lunchtime.
Today, it’s still the norm for students to show up at school with lunch in hand. That said, many schools do have a canteen where students can purchase food, and some do, as a special treat. Available foods typically include sandwich fixings like bread, meat, cheese, and condiments (margarine, vegemite, etc.), as well as snacks like grain bars or fruit.
Parents typically have to pay for school lunches in the U.K., although families may qualify for free lunches for students in certain circumstances, and in some areas, like London, primary students receive it for free.
School lunches in the U.K. are required to include protein (like meat, fish, or cheese), carbohydrates (like pasta or rice), and fruits or vegetables, as well as a drink and dessert.
The menu for French school lunch generally includes a main course consisting of protein (meat, fish, eggs, beans/lentils), vegetables, and cereals. However, the meal starts with an appetizer (usually a cold vegetable course like a salad), includes a cheese course, and ends with dessert.
Water is typically the only beverage served to students. School lunches are rarely free, but they’re almost universally subsidized.
Barriers to High-Quality American School Lunches
School lunches in America aren’t likely to beat Swedish, Korean, or French fare any time soon, despite USDA efforts to implement improvements. Between supply-chain difficulties, worker shortages, and lack of investment, it may be hard to get proposed initiatives off the ground and allow U.S. school lunches to compete with other parts of the world.
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