06/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

School Lunches Around the World

Have you eaten a school lunch anywhere in the United States? Stood in line with little kids in the cafeteria and tried to find something remotely digestible to put on your tray? Did you squirm at the warmed over pizza, the lifeless salad, the ever present sweets and treats?

Join me for a unique little travel tour. Instead of museums and parks we're going to visit schools around the world to see what they feed their children. This peek at how other countries eat comes courtesy of an interesting column called Country Watch on the website School Food Policy

Kudos to this website; they've taken up the task of educating American parents about what their kids are eating in our schools, including comparing that to what kids eat around the world.

Let's start in Japan:

"Japanese schoolchildren eat lunch in the classroom, and students take turns serving the meal and cleaning up afterward. Their teacher eats the same food with them -- typically rice, soup, fish and milk -- and pays close attention to manners.

Lunch in Japanese schools is part of the curriculum just like math or science. The midday meal is meant to improve student health, but also to 'foster correct eating habits and good human relations' according to the Ministry of Education. Schools send home a monthly menu that outlines the nutritional value of each meal, lists the ingredients and discusses the benefits of the foods served, many of which are locally grown and produced."

Wow. Using lunchtime to teach students about good nutrition by feeding them food that's good for them? What a concept.

But that could just be a Japanese thing. Let's see what do they do in France:

"Here's what students in one Paris school district ate for lunch last Tuesday: cucumbers with garlic and fine herbs; Basque chicken thigh with herbs, red and green bell peppers and olive oil; couscous; organic yogurt and an apple. For snack, they had organic bread, butter, hot chocolate and fruit.

Like the Japanese, the French take school lunch seriously. The mid-day meal is supposed to teach students good manners, good taste and the elements of good nutrition. Recommendations from the French government assert that eating habits are shaped from a young age and that schools should ensure children make good food choices despite media influence and personal tendencies."

Basque chicken with herbs? Organic bread? No wonder there are so many fabulous cooks in France; when they grow up eating wonderful, healthy food in their school cafeteria, those children become adults who want to eat well. Imagine that.

I can't wait to see what they serve their kids in Italy. Like most travelers, I love eating my way across that country, where the meals are as memorable as the scenery. Sure enough, they don't disappoint:

"Like France, Italy views lunch as an integral part of a student's education. School meals are supposed to teach children about local traditions and instill a taste for the regional food. To that end, Italian law allows schools to consider more than just price when making contracts with meal providers. Schools can take into account location, culture and how foods fit into the curriculum.

All this makes for lunches that are about as different as it gets from American school meals. On a recent Friday, students in the northern city of Piacenza ate zucchini risotto and mozzarella, tomato and basil salad. Tomorrow they're getting pesto lasagna, a selection of cheeses and a platter of garden vegetables. Meat only shows up on menus only once or twice a week, and it's usually not the main course."

Zucchini risotto and mozzarella. Tomato and basil salad. Fresh cheeses and garden vegetables.

Oh my.

As an American, I find this embarrassing. Their kids get organic fruits and vegetables and learn about good nutrition. Our kids get squishy fries, rubbery pizza and mystery burgers. One thing to note: these wonderful lunches do cost money. According to Deborah Lehman, author of the Country Watch column, that meal in Rome costs a little over $5.50 to produce; children pay according to what their family can afford to a maximum of $2.80 and the government pays the rest. Here in the U.S., the government pays $.24 for an average full-price school lunch, and each free meal cost taxpayers $2.57.

For those who would argue that we pay too much already, consider this typical lunch at a typical elementary school Ms. Lehman visited in California: fried chicken and potatoes with sides of barbeque sauce and ketchup for the main dish. Goldfish crackers and an apple for a snack. In Italy their tax dollars are paying for organic fruits, vegetables and fresh cheese. Our tax dollars are paying for a whole lot of grease, salt and additives.

I'd say we're getting ripped off. Actually we're getting ripped off twice: once by paying to feed our American kids a junk food diet, then again when those same kids develop health problems that could have been prevented with better understanding of the nutritional value of food. Would you pay more to help kids, our kids, American kids, down a lifelong path of better health? As the old saying goes, you're gonna pay now or you're gonna pay later. And having worked in health care I can say without doubt, that bill is going to be much, much higher if you opt to pay later.

This is the United States. We can do better.