Fish appears to be on every cafeteria menu, and may be served from once a month to twice a week depending on the school. This should be seen as positive, right? After all, fish is a great source of protein and it’s rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), which is fundamental for optimal brain and visual functioning. Omega-3 fatty acids also help prevent cardiovascular and degenerative diseases and a couple of types of cancer. What’s more, fish is a great source of vitamin B12 and contains an abundance of micronutrients such as selenium, copper and zinc.
However, due to price, regulations, eating habits, a lack of education and an absence of cooking skills, schools cafeterias buy a very restricted range of fish varieties, which are often farmed in unsustainable, polluting aquaculture environments with no regard for animal welfare. In fact, the frozen fillets which end up in cafeterias may be lacking in many of the above-mentioned nutritional aspects that make fish such an attractive option in the first place. The perfect example of this is one of the most popular fish fillets used in catering: the shark catfish, fished in the polluted waters of the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, then conserved with sodium tripolyphosphate (commercially known as E451), which contributes to the eutrophication of fresh waters.
Philip’s Academy in Newark, New Jersey, USA, is a school with high hopes and green dreams, an inspiring example of what can be done in school canteens and food education. The school’s motto is “Nourishing minds, bodies, and communities”, which underlines a commitment to improving children’s’ health and lifestyle, as well as influencing the collective well-being of underprivileged neighborhoods of New York and New Jersey. “The cafeterias goal was the drastic reduction of processed food, the introduction of vegetables and fruits grown in the school and in aero-farms and the decreased influence of big industry on the kid’s menu”, says Robert Wallauer, the cafeteria chef. “The biggest challenge we face is using local, healthy sources of protein within the budget and the USDA National Lunch Program regulations, a federally designed meal program which requires the usage of commodity fish from a set list (commonly Catfish, Tuna, Pollock or Salmon).
Of course, cafeteria kitchens in the USA differ from state to state. In Alaska thanks to the funding of NAFS (Nutritional Alaska Foods in Schools), the Fish to School program promotes local catch, especially Wild Alaskan Salmon but also Cod, Halibut, Rockfish and Pollock.
Stephen Ritz, founder of the Green Bronx Machine in New York, managed to bring his idea of improving community well-being to life through urban agriculture and food education. The South Bronx, where the organization is located, has the some of the highest rate of juvenile chronic diseases in the State. But through Ritz’s green revolution, school cafeteria menus in the area are now based mostly on vegetables grown in schools gardens. A dish with animal-based protein is generally served three times a week, and fish is only served on special occasions. The idea of choosing less animal protein, but with higher quality and sustainability, seems to works well in improving school cafeterias.
In Singapore, school cafeterias are offering students a much wider variety of fish—from Dory, Kuning Fish (Yellowstrip Scad) and Sardines to the typical Ikan Billis (Anchovies) and even Stingray. Students can also enjoy shellfish, mostly prawns. In South Korea school lunches are very nourishing: children eat seaweed, all kinds of seafood (prawns, crab, clams, mussels & squid), and fish such as anchovies, eel or loaches. The same thing happens in Japan, while in China fish is not common in school cafeterias, apart from in schools close to the sea.
European countries are generally more more limited in their fish choices, though in Copenhagen, Denmark, schools are promoting food education through a workshop program, and letting kids cook in their school kitchens. One of the most stimulating such projects was however organized by Nordic Food Lab. During this workshop, kids were shown the Japanese art of Gyotaku (the traditional method of printing fish). Chefs then showed kids how to fillet a whole fish and how to cook different parts of it so they would understand that fish is so much more than just store-bought frozen fillet. Understanding where our food really comes from is the first step towards recognizing the need for good, clean and fair food for all.
This article is based on the thesis “Food of School Cafeterias Around the World: Tradition, Innovation, Health, Sustainability and the use of Fish and Mollusks” written by Rita Goralska for the Master in Food & Health at UniSG (University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo, Italy). It focuses on school cafeterias worldwide and on the use of fish. The information contained herein was gathered through “Global Mission” – a scholarship from the Food Innovation Program, which included research in 7 countries across 3 different continents.