Thursday, February 14, 2013

Book Review: Andrea Curtis' What's For Lunch?

[Full disclosure – I was provided with a free copy of this book by the author]

Andrea Curtis is a Toronto based writer and teacher, as well as a fresh whole foods activist. At her son’s school, she initiated a garden program, and she volunteers regularly at a community food centre.

Months, and months, and months ago Andrea kindly sent me her children’s book, What’s For Lunch? How Schoolchildren Eat Around the World. I’m not sure why it took me so long to get to (sorry Andrea), but I’m glad I finally did.

The book’s simple to explain. Exploring 13 different countries’ school systems Curtis knew,
Whether their school is under the vast umbrella of a banyan tree, in a dusty tent held up with poles, or in a sturdy brick structure in the heart of a bustling city, all children need a healthy lunch to be able to learn and to grow”,
and she set out to highlight global school lunches, and at the same time, some of the political social and cultural issues that they underscored. With beautiful photographs and stories, Curtis takes young readers across the globe: From the incredible school food of Japan, to a scoop of dal served on paper on a chalkboard in India, to America’s highly processed no-name fast food pizza, to Canada’s bagged lunch as we here in Canada share the dubious honour of being the only G8 nation without a national school meal program.

Aimed at children aged 8 and up, Curtis’ book will definitely open young eyes – both to the juxtaposition of our processed North American school fare with just how lucky those of us living in North America truly are, as well as to different cultural, political and ideological attitudes surrounding food. Each school lunch is photographed and used to briefly explain that country’s issues and food attitudes.

The book’s truly lovely, but I have two important considerations for Curtis’ next print run. The book perpetuates a few myths about obesity. Firstly the book explicitly explains obesity as a consequence of “unhealthy” food (in two locations, and just in passing), and while no doubt the foods we eat are part and parcel of our growing waistlines, and that obesity is a highly complex issue beyond the scope of a children’s school lunch book, I wonder, especially with younger readers, how the book’s simplified linkage of obesity to unhealthy food might lead them to judge people with obesity. Secondly, and this runs somewhat contrary to the last point, when discussing Shanghai, China’s school lunch (which looks amazing by the way), Curtis notes,
To combat obesity, compulsory folk dancing classes have been introduced as some schools; elsewhere provincial governments require students to run 1km (0.6mi.) a day during breaks
While I don’t doubt whether or not China has attributed obesity to a lack of exercise and believes short runs or folk dancing will help, the fact of the matter is that inactivity is neither the cause, nor the cure for obesity – in fact I think that message is part of the reason society is struggling so dramatically with dealing with weight. So while I’ve no doubt those two erroneous messages are hammered home to kids everywhere, it’d be great if they weren’t part of this school lunch story.

As to whether or not I’d recommend What’s For Lunch? I would. It’s fascinating and I think a great introduction to the issue of food activisim and I’ve given the book to my 8 year old to read. And as for those messages that concerned me up above – they’re few and far enough between that I think they’ll afford me the opportunity for a teachable moment with my daughter where we can discuss those issues in greater detail.

[If you'd like you can order Andrea's book via this Amazon affiliate link.]

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5 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:07 am

    Wouldn't "unhealthy food" mean TOO MUCH food?

    A bit of salt is needed, too much salt is unhealthy.
    Vitamins are needed, too much of some vitamins is unhealthy (though I think it's overuse of supplements that can reach unhealthy levels, not too many vegs.).
    Calories are needed, but too many calories is unhealthy.

    Perhaps the book should specify what "unhealthy food" means when it concerns obesity:
    Unhealthy food = too many calories.

    No matter what other nutrients a food has, if it has too much salt, or too many calories, it is an unhealthy food.

    Of course, healthy food for one person may be very unhealthy for another person with different salt or calorie needs.

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  2. The healthy / unhealthy food division is one I very much object to, because no food is per se either. Some of you may remember Mark Taub, who a while ago went to lose weight on a fast food diet centered on Twinkies. At the end of it, all many of his vital signs, including cholesterol were better.

    On the other hand, nuts usually are considered healthy, but if you had 6,000 kcal worth of them per day, you would in short order become obese and, certainly, unhealthy.

    A diet, including one for school children, is healthy when it doesn't lead to either under- or overweight and doesn't cause deficiencies.

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  3. Christie4:32 pm

    Not sure that it's a fair criticism of Curtis to pull out the example of China's policy regarding exercise to fight obesity. It's China's health policy, not Curtis's. She is reporting a fact in the context of the overall examination of China's attitude toward food and the lifestyle involved in maintaining health. Just a thought. Thanks for the review and recommendation.

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  4. I'd love to read your daughter's review of the book, as well.

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  5. Anonymous12:49 pm

    Interesting. One of my kids' ( 4 and 7) favourite books to flip through and chat about is our copy of What the World Eats. It has served as a great starting point for discussions about poverty, food safety, healthy eating, family dynamics, as well as inspiring a long list of new foods that they want to try.

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