When adults think back to their own experience of school lunch, they may recall the compartmentalized trays, the hair-netted servers, the special treats served on holidays, or the recurring question of who will sit with whom; everyone, surely, remembers the lunchroom smell, that unmistakable cocktail of sweaty bodies, institutional cooking, and chalk dust. Whatever the specifics of lunchroom memories, the fact that such memories exist when so much of what happens in school is beyond recall is itself interesting. Something important occurs during school lunch. Yet lunch has received less attention in the education literature than practically anything else connected with schooling (Weaver-Hightower, 2011). While much remains to be examined in relation to school lunch, this special issue illuminates several of the under-researched and under-theorized phenomena involving students' noon-time meal. It is my hope that the articles appearing in this special issue will interest and inform in their own right, and that, collectively, they will also serve as an invitation to others to inquire into school lunch.
The sheer number of students involved recommends school lunch as a topic for investigation. Across the United States each school day (in 2011) over 50 million students in grades pre-kindergarten through twelve ate lunch, nearly all in a school cafeteria (United States' Census Bureau, 2011, n.p.). In addition, while school lunch is a multi-faceted phenomenon, it is at root about one of the most basic of human needs: food. The food we eat literally builds and sustains our bodies and food is tightly woven into the cultural and other practices that help constitute our personal and cultural identities. Growing, processing, preparing and/or serving food is the life-work of over half of the world's population.
In the popular media, lunch food is most often discussed in terms of its nutritional value, and this is an important concern, one too often overlooked until fairly recently. While several of the articles in this volume are concerned with nutrition in one regard or another, all the articles also discuss lunch in terms of its broader social significance. This is appropriate given that what gets counted as food is worthy of considerable analysis. From a biological standpoint, there are millions of things humans can safely and healthfully eat, but only a very small percentage of these are regarded as food. And what is regarded as food in one culture may be regarded quite differently in another (Montanari, 2006). In one context a dog is dinner; in another, the family pet (Herzog, 2010). Food (and the experience of eating) always exists in a social, cultural, and historical context, and understanding the significance of food--and certainly understanding the complex institutional practice of school lunch--requires inquiry into a great number of phenomena that may not immediately appear linked to food. Social relations between students as well as between schools and the larger community, policies connected with food service, the use of time during the noon meal, the relation between school lunch and animal welfare among various other ethical concerns, gender relations, and aesthetics are among the topics the authors included here address. The following brief introductions cannot do justice to the articles themselves, but will, perhaps, suggest the breadth of the topic at hand as well as provide the reader some guidance as to where to, well, dig in. (1)
Dreary institutional or fatty fast-food may be the most common options available for children eating school lunch, but they are not the only ones. In "Bringing Educational Thought to Public School Lunch: Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard," Susan Laird examines school lunch in the context of Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California. At the heart of this school is the Edible Schoolyard, an on-site, one-acre garden that provides organic produce for use in the school's kitchen as well as opportunities for hands-on learning in various academic disciplines. The garden is also central to the school's most recent curricular innovation, "eco-gastronomy," which combines the study of food, aesthetics, and sustainability. The Edible Schoolyard is a brainchild of restaurateur and social activist Alice Waters, who, as Laird notes, was moved to transform Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, a once-decrepit institution she drove past daily on the way to her famous restaurant, Chez Panisse.
Laird's extensive reading of modern philosophical studies of food and education informs and grounds her study of the Edible Schoolyard and Water's educational leadership there. One...