School lunches have recently become big news. From Michelle Obama’s campaign to bring healthier choices to American children to instantly famous child school lunch blogger Martha Payne in Scotland, what children are being served while at school is making waves. In every country, food culture is different and this is reflected in, not only the lunches provided by schools, but also how they are served.
Here in Korea, school lunches share about zero similarities with what was offered at my public school in the United States. While I grew up on nachos with neon orange cheese, soggy fries, and cheese filled bread sticks, Korean students are given a fairly well balanced meal. Currently in Seoul lunch is provided for free to the about 810,000 elementary and middle school students at public schools ensuring that all students get a warm, filling meal in the middle of the day.
A typical lunch at a Korean school includes rice, soup, a protein dish, and two or three banchan, or side dishes, that are staples of Korean meals. The quality and variety of dishes vary greatly by school. Some of my friends who are fellow teachers love their lunches while others are stuck with seaweed soup, kimchi, and white rice every single day.
To give a better example of the types of foods that are served, I will highlight three meals that were served at my school cafeteria this week.
On Monday, we had rice, kimchi stew (kimchi jjigae), radish kimchi (kkakdugi), cucumber kimchi (oi sobaegi), and boneless fried chicken. It was a kimchi heavy day, but the kimchi jjigae (with bits of tofu and pork) is a favorite. Fried chicken may not be the healthiest option, but it is incredibly popular in Korea, and the students are given small portions.
The next day lunch consisted of rice, soybean paste soup with potatoes, mushrooms, and green pumpkin (doenjang jjigae), coleslaw, cabbage kimchi, and bulgogi steaks, which are similar to meatloaf.
Finally, we had white rice, potato soup, scrambled eggs, steamed eggplant with soy sauce, and cabbage kimchi.
As you can see, even though the lunches follow a pattern, each day it is different. Besides the kimchi. There is always kimchi! Students can’t choose what they want, and they must eat everything that is given to them. The food that is served is representative of Korean cuisine, featuring items that would served in restaurants and Korean households around the country.
The food isn’t the only thing that is a far cry from American school lunches. Lunch time also works differently in Korea. Americans are familiar with large cafeterias filled with long tables and “lunch ladies” monitoring student behavior. In most schools in Korea students eat in their classrooms with their teachers. The time is used to teach proper etiquette, and often, the students help serve the food and clean up after lunch. Lunch time is seen as an extension of class. It is a time to learn about nutrition, wastefulness, and responsibility.
Korean school lunches aren’t perfect. Like students around the world I’m sure do, they complain that the food is disgusting, they try to get out of eating things they don’t like, and they come back for several helpings on fried chicken day. School lunches in Korea, though, show responsibility. Responsibility in serving actual food, and responsibility in teaching children the fundamentals of healthy eating and respect for food.