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New book explores educational dimensions of ubiquitous school lunch experience

Monday, November 05, 2018

LAWRENCE — No matter which school they attended, most Americans likely have similar memories of lunch time. Whether it’s the rectangular trays, a certain favorite dish, the friendly lunch lady or something more painful like being relegated to a table of kids deemed uncool, it’s an indelible part of the school experience. Yet school lunch is often looked at as an inconvenient but necessary part of the day. A new book co-edited by a University of Kansas professor is among the first to take a look at the common experience and how it is a central part of nearly every student’s experience.

“Educational Dimensions of School Lunch: A Critical Perspective” was edited by Suzanne Rice, professor of educational leadership & policy studies at KU, and A.G. Rud of Washington State University. The collection brings together essays from scholars from a wide array of backgrounds and explores school lunch philosophically, socially and from perspectives of food security, ethics and naturally, education.

“The book provides snapshots of the range of things that happen in school cafeterias that are, in one way or another, educationally significant in how students think about the world of food,” Rice said. “We take it for granted and few of us think about it as adults unless we had a painful experience, but it’s an experience nearly every student has had.”

Rice, her co-editor and authors examine school lunch as a part of the day that might not happen in the classroom yet is still part of a child’s education. Even though a lesson plan may not guide what happens and there are variations in the experience from school to school, the students are, without a doubt, learning. Several authors examine what lunch teaches students about food, food security, health and what constitutes food. Thousands of people around the world are focusing on the topics, along with rising global famine, yet few apply that line of thought to school lunches.

Other contributors look at the issue from a cultural perspective. From regional variations in what is served to fast food creeping into the school experience to learning to socialize with others during a meal, students learn about culture through one of the most common of human experiences: eating with others.

“In a million different ways, we’re learning the norms of our society during lunch time, like what counts as food or human relations,” Rice said. “Not all lessons we learn in the lunch room are good, but it’s still a shaping experience for all us and one of the least studied aspects of school.”

The contributors and editors explore not only how the lunch break shapes and educates students, but how better understanding of the learning experience therein can shape policy that can address the inherent problems. For example, inclusion is a hot topic in education, yet everyday students with disabilities, minorities, students living in poverty and others are ostracized. And teachers who are overworked, and often hungry themselves, are expected to act as “lunchroom police.” Meanwhile students are learning in their classrooms and at home about food insecurity, food deserts and more, while the school meal is the best millions of young people get every day.

“This book arrives at a truly important time in our global history, when we face multiple and seemingly contradictory crises of hunger, unconscionable waste and obesity. We face truly hard decisions about how to ethically, sustainably and healthily feed the world. This book provides much-needed insights that push forward current discussions and policymaking,” writes Marcus Weaver-Hightower of Educational Foundation and Research in the book’s foreword.

Jennifer Ng, associate professor of educational leadership & policy studies at KU, contributes a chapter on the social value of a slow school lunch, while Rice writes about the increasingly varied outlook on eating meat. Rud examines the “school lunch curriculum,” or policies and practices guiding lunch across the nation, and other scholars examine topics including rethinking school lunch as public education, recognizing and avoiding food enclosures, lunch for students who receive special education services and similar topics.

Rice and Rud will present the book and its arguments at the American Educational Studies Association conference in November. Meanwhile, millions of students across the country will continue learning lessons intended an unintended in the classroom. But with better understanding, Rice and co-authors hope, the experience can better reflect the lessons and educational aims schools, educators, communities and society want to impart.

Top photo: Istock

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