“Meatless Mondays” and Lunch-Less Schooldays

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Jamie Oliver’s school lunch “revolution” in the UK and the US started out with one basic premise: that school lunches are not healthy.  School meals are usually made with processed ingredients and contain more bad stuff than good stuff, and Oliver sought to change all that with meals made with fresh ingredients and sanitary, professional cooking methods.  All this, then, helps curb obesity, and enables children to make more healthy choices about what they eat (or what they’re made to eat).

It starts with that premise: schools serve their students a meal.  Here, that is not the case.  All too often, children at school go hungry for the lack of lunch.  Lunches in Philippine public schools are not free, and prohibitively expensive for those children who need the free meal the most.

Don’t get me wrong: I like the idea of encouraging kids to eat healthy and the idea of people eating more indigenous food items, but there’s something amiss – if not remiss – with “Meatless Mondays” applied in Philippine schools, as proposed by Bayan Muna Rep. Teodoro Casiño.  It’s not a crappy bill – not at all – if we had a school lunch program set here.

The Philippine Institute for Development Studies, in its fourth Filipino Child Policy Brief in 2010, presents some interesting data: in a survey, 22.1% of elementary school students, and 29.0% of high school students, dropped out of school in 2004 because of the high costs and expenses involved in education (34.5% of the bottom 20% of high school students indicate that as a reason).  Talk about leaving kids behind in the lunch line: what good will green leafy vegetables will do to kids who can’t buy ’em?  What’s sad about the public education system is that kids support themselves to go to and through school instead of being supported by the school.

In many schools, cafeterias and canteens are noticeably absent; where they do exist, the food items are prohibitively expensive considering what a student has to spend in the way of school requirements, fare, and so on.  And where they do exist there is no place to eat: those who bring baon eat their cold rice and cold food in their desks and armchairs, some go home, and a great many don’t even eat lunch.

We don’t have to get to the nitty-gritty of the philosophical arguments here with regard to socialism or the ability of kids to make a choice or the possibility of a free lunch.  With all due respect to Rep. Casiño, I think that legislation needs the necessary institutional and structural support for laws and bills to succeed.  Sure, school cafeterias will serve all the fresh green leafy vegetables available to them every Monday, but it does not address the bigger problem at hand.  As long as children are not able to afford and access these lunches – whether for the lack of money, time, or place to eat – they will not be eating these lunches.  So it’s all a matter of making this green-leafy-vegetables on-Monday law happen when we get the execution of a State-subsidized school lunch right.

Again, with all due respect – if Rep. Casiño would like to call for a “Meatless Monday” action, then he should lobby instead for institutions to be in place for “Meatless Mondays:” structures like cafeterias, institutions like State-subsidized school lunches.  For a meatless Monday to be realized, no child should be left behind in the lunch line.  I believe that Rep. Casiño should champion the cause of the school lunch first, and then go for the green leafy vegetables.  To put it bluntly, it’s giving teeth.

All this should fall into the realm of common sense.  Getting the school lunch right – and making it work – should at least be a test and testament to our collective commitment.  It should be a litmus test to public accountability: just because it can be a source of corruption doesn’t mean that it has to be.  A test of will, that is, if it really is conscionable here not to steal from your own child’s lunch plate funded by your own taxes.  And sure, the problem is much bigger than subsidizing the cafeteria, but if we’re going to start off somewhere, we should start, I think, in the right place.

For “Meatless Mondays” to happen, lunch-less schooldays should first cease to exist.  And at least here, that’s something way more revolutionary than what Jamie Oliver is fighting for.

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