A Tale of Two School Lunches: Excess in America, Insecticide in India

Spoiled food killed schoolchildren in India. What will spoiling do to our kids?



It was the juxtaposition, I think, that got to me.

The first story in the Wall Street Journal told how the headmistress of that school in India where kids died last July from eating lunches tainted with insecticide has been charged with murder. I remembered the story from this summer. But the details in this update were heartbreaking. Apparently, the cook who prepared the food told the headmistress it smelled off; the headmistress told her to serve it anyway. The kids complained that it tasted strange; the headmistress told them to shut up and eat their soybeans, rice and potato curry. Forty-two of them, plus the cook, were hospitalized; 23 subsequently died. The state government has paid the affected families $3,273 per dead child.

The second story ran the very next day in the Wall Street Journal. It was accompanied by three separate photos, plus a photographic chart, and it concerned “The Perfect School Lunch” as it exists in America today. One photo showed a lunch pail packed with the “vibrantly colored foods” cookbook author Catherine McCord uses to entice her kids to eat their lunches: apple chunks, pomegranate seeds, lovingly trimmed radishes and heirloom carrots, a neat stack of animal crackers. Another photo showcased the midday meal that baker/blogger Jami Curl of Portland, Oregon, made on Wednesday, October 16th, for her six-year-old son Theo, complete with handwritten menu/love note: tuna rolls, edamame with the cutest little tin of Jacobsen sea salt (it sells for $50 a pound), cantaloupe bits, farm-share carrot coins. There are fresh lemon slices (for the cantaloupe? The sushi? I’m sure Theo knows), and a dip for the carrot coins, too. Ms. Curl told the WSJ she likes to “pack a little bit of me in lunch each day.” If she gives Theo a boring old sandwich for lunch, he doesn’t eat it, alas.

This second story is about more than the framing it gets in the Wall Street Journal, which is that parent-packed school lunches are far less likely to include a lowly sandwich today (58 percent) than in 1995 (73 percent). Or the paper’s advice from registered dietician-nutritionist Angela Lemond about the biggest mistakes parents make packing lunches (too repetitive!). Or schools’ no-nuts, zero-trash and anti-food-poisoning restrictions that are making home-packing so darned complicated. Or even the fact that if a parent in the Post Oak School District in Bellaire, Texas, dares pack gummy bears for her child, that child will be permitted to consume them, but must do so alone, in a segregated seating area, since there’s a strict “no candy” lunch policy.

This is a story about excess, and entitlement.

Of course, it’s not Bellaire, Texas’s fault that kids in India rely so heavily on school lunches to keep them from starving that they’ll eat tainted food when they’re told to, even if it tastes bad and sends them to the hospital. It’s not Jami Curl’s fault, either. Theo told the Journal that the lunches his mom packs for him are “so, so good.” It’s nice that he appreciates her handiwork. I just … I don’t know. These two stories present such a stark contrast between, not even the one percent and the 99 percent, but the one-one-hundred-thousandth percent in our world and all the rest that’s left over. Then again, Curl does, she told the Journal, often incorporate leftovers in Theo’s lunch.