Editor’s Note: Our October feature, How Do You Say "Yum" Around the World?, will encourage students to carefully examine their food choices and habits. Use this engaging activity from Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith to expand on international nutrition rules while you’re at it!
About four years ago, the American international school I work at in Shanghai, China, switched cafeteria providers. After several years of working with Eurest—a huge multinational food service company—we switched to Sodexo, an even bigger one. The switch came rather abruptly and was frustrating for us health teachers, as we had been working with the Eurest staff over the years to adapt their menu to provide our kids with consistently healthy choices.
While the new Sodexo staff were more than willing to work with us, it felt like we would need to start all over again. And with Chinese chefs working for a French company in an American school, things were inevitably going to get complicated.
When we approached their manager about healthy food options, we wanted to know what set of dietary guidelines they were using to plan and prepare the meals. Turns out, with so many competing influences, they hadn’t settled on one. However, the manager was happy to meet with us, so we set off gathering recommendations.
As it turns out, it wasn’t so easy for us either. The U.S. guidelines that we had traditionally used in class were wordy and complicated, with recommendations for specific sodium milligrams that would be difficult for our staff to measure. So we broadened our search. Australia had recently released new school food guidelines, and the red/yellow/green system they were using seemed like it would be easy for our Mandarin-speaking chefs to follow.
But we had another issue. With the multicultural background of our students, one set of dietary guidelines wasn’t necessarily going to work. It’s difficult to mandate brown rice for all students when many come from Asian countries—including some with a particularly healthy diet, like Japan. So we dug deeper.
At the time, we were using Michael Pollan’s Food Rules in class, and his guidelines (eat food, not too much, mostly plants) are built around basic messages about real food, not specific recommendations about what exactly you should eat. Since he was always sharing new information about food that we could trust, I was following him closely on social media. Just before our meeting, he tweeted out a link to an article about the “revolutionary guidelines built around foods, food patterns, and meals, not nutrients” that had just come from Brazil.
The reason why Brazil had chosen to go in this direction is that they are a multicultural country with citizens hailing from all over the world, and with different cultures finding different ways to balance their nutrients, a “one-size-fits-all” approach was never going to work. This really struck a chord with me, because at our school—with 3,000 students from over 40 countries—we were finding ourselves in a similar boat.
Going through this process and learning about the ways different countries guided their citizens to eat inspired me to learn more. I discovered a page from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations that supplied links to the dietary guidelines from countries all over the world. I was excited to share it with my multicultural seventh graders and get their feedback. Did the countries they came from stick to the guidelines suggested from their governments? And after all they had learned about eating real food, which specific guidelines did they think were the best?
We decided to solve our multicultural cafeteria dilemma by getting the kids involved. After researching the guidelines, they brainstormed, voted, and decided which ones they would present to our chefs. During the process, they not only learned about different cultures and their diets, but also got to have a say in the food they’re served now.