Eating Contest

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Saturday's New York Times carried a photo-assisted op-ed piece in which science journalist Ellen Ruppel Shell compared the supposedly typical U.S. school lunch to its counterparts in Russia, France, Mexico, and South Korea. Unfavorably, of course. Far be it from me to defend government-issue cuisine, but Shell's determination to prove that other countries do it better is obvious both from what she says and from what she omits.

The photo of the American lunch–pot roast, mashed potatoes, broccoli, an apple, and milk–is accompanied by this tendentious caption: "The gravy and chocolate milk may go down easy, but they don't do much to enhance the nutritional value of this fat-heavy meal." No one really expects gravy to enhance nutritional value; it is there, presumably, to make the meat (chock full of protein and iron, as Shell neglects to point out) more palatable. But the milk (an excellent source of calcium, plus vitamins B and D) is low-fat, and the chocolate flavoring does not increase the fat content.

The captions next to the other photos reinforce the suspicion that the fix is in. The South Korean lunch, for instance, is praised as "high in flavor, low in fat, and varied enough to keep even finicky eaters interested." Shell does not remark on the fried sweet potatoes, although one can imagine what she would have said if something similar had turned up on the American tray. The Russian meal, mostly beef and starch, is praised for its "fresh fruit": a tomato wedge and a cup of "mandarin orange compote." By contrast, the broccoli and apple in the U.S. lunch are ignored. The Mexican lunch ("a big dose of starch, but very little sugar or fat") features a vague item identified only as "meat" that fails to arouse Shell's journalistic curiosity.

That pot roast never stood a chance.

NEXT: No Medical Excuse

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  1. It seems to me that the ‘food police’ are focusing in too narrow a fashion on the food itself instead of the lifestyle choices that make some folks overweight and at a higher risk of certain diseases. Having spent some time in Europe, where seeing an obese person is somewhat of an event, I can vouch that they don’t eat any healthier than we do. The diet there seems to be heavy on cheese, meat, and alcohol (beer and wine). Hardly commendable by our standards. Also, go into the grocery store there and try to find low-fat or fat-free anything. Compared to American grocery stores, there’s hardly anything on the shelves that offers a choice for would-be weight watchers.

    Also, people in Germany, in particular, tend to eat dinner very late at night (9 to 10 PM), which is also generally not recommended by health experts for managing your calories. This is due to cultural history, and also to the fact that most stores in Germany close by 8 PM at the latest (and usually are open that late only one or two days per week, or during the Christmas shopping season). Therefore people want to get their shopping done before going to dinner, unlike the US where we tend to eat first before going out.

    There are two factors, I think, that lead to the paradoxical situation that most Europeans eat a worse diet that we do and still don’t have the same rates of obesity. One is that dense urban living vs. suburban living encourages more walking and less driving. The other is higher relative food prices, thanks due to a combo plan of taxes, farm subsidies and restrictions on food technology such as genetically modified foods that lower production costs. People there may eat high calorie, high fat food but they end up eating less of it.

    The food industry in the US has done an excellent job of trying to mitigate some of the lifestyle factors that make Americans more prone to weight gain by offering a literal smorgasboard of low-cal, low-fat food offerings that are generally of high quality (compared to the original choices of a few years ago) and reasonably priced. Compared to the rest of the world, they should be commended for this. Instead they suffer the criticisms of the health nannies for also offering the same types of food the rest of the world takes for granted.

  2. It’s never a problem to come to the pre-determined conclusion. One finds what one is looking for.

  3. My son only eats one meal per day at the government indoctrination center. The other six to eleven meals are all from home.

    If one looked at any particular single feeding, they wouldn’t need to be a professional scold to be worried. Averaged over a day or two, however, he has a remarkably well-balanced diet.

    Does Ms. Shell explain how I’m supposed to get my kid to eat Korean food? He’s a bit more adventurous than his peers, but I think kim chee and pea paste are no-go.

  4. My son only eats one meal per day at the government indoctrination center. The other six to eleven meals are all from home.

    If one looked at any particular single feeding, they wouldn’t need to be a professional scold to be worried. Averaged over a day or two, however, he has a remarkably well-balanced diet.

    Does Ms. Shell explain how I’m supposed to get my kid to eat Korean food? He’s a bit more adventurous than his peers, but I think kim chee and pea paste are no-go.

  5. And how can she mention “showering” and France in the same piece?

  6. Like any good self-reliant young American, I avoided the government-supplied food and brought my own lunch to school as a kid. Except on pizza or taco day, of course.

  7. “…a vague item identified only as ‘meat’…”

    That sure sounds like an American school lunch to me!

  8. LOL, Kevin. My favorite school lunch was “Food Loaf with Vegetable Side, and Half-pint of Malk.”

  9. What about the North Korean lunch? I understand that one contains no fat, carbs, or sugar at all.

  10. Don’t you know the United States is evil! We can’t do anything right…

  11. Are we not ignoring that, despite the good or lack thereof of a school lunch program, that this is something the government should not be doing? Since when was performing a charity with tax dollars considered a proper use of those dollars?

  12. During a visit to my daughter’s school cafeteria a few years ago I found that the quality of the food there hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years. What has changed is that now my daughter has choices in her school diet. In addition to the cafe food the students can order McDonalds or Taco Bell from franchises in the same room. When did I start sending my kid to school to be a captive audience for the fast food industry? Oh, I know, about the same time she started comming home with something she was supposed to sell in the neighborhood every month (candy bars, seeds, magazine subscriptions). School lunches aren’t the problem- the school systems selling our kids to the highest bidder is.

  13. Janis: To some extent, I agree. The kids shouldn’t need fund raisers for school basics. Even adjusted for inflation, per pupil outlays are greater than ever (only to get crappy public education). But, all that aside, your child is not a captive audience to fast food. You can always send a good, nutritious lunch to school with him or her.

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