Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Lunchtime Lessons

Tiki Barber, Kathie Lee Gifford, Jamie Lee Curtis and now Queen Rania of Jordan: it seems that anyone who is anyone is writing a children's book with a moral message. Queen Rania's new book, The Sandwich Swap is the tale of two girls who bring very different lunches to school - one brings hummus on pita and the other peanut butter and jelly. Each thinks the other girl's lunch is disgusting, but in the end they overcome these judgments, swap sandwiches and learn important life lessons.

Queen Rania has been getting a lot of press for the book, appearing recently on Oprah and Good Morning America. She explains that the book stems from a similar childhood experience that taught her the importance of embracing diversity. It reminded me of my own childhood experiences in the lunchroom, where the take-home message was often very different.

My K-8 elementary school offered a hot school lunch program, but by middle school most kids were bringing their lunches from home instead. Hot lunches provided a certain democracy. Everyone had the same options and there was little room for judgment. Brown bag lunches, on the other hand, could determine your social status. I still remember trading my lunch of reheated frozen Lender's bagel with cream cheese with the girl whose mom had meticulously packed her tuna, flatbreads and a red delicious apple. Another girl used to bring a cheese sandwich and her lunch bag usually included a personal note that her mom. And I will never forget my friend Jen's sardine sandwich. I couldn't say whether she brought it once or a few times, but it attracted so much attention that she never brought it again. In theory, sardines, rich in calcium, iron and omega-3s, are an ideal lunch for kids. But while they pack a strong nutritional punch, they are also blessed with a pungent aroma that left my friend exiled to the end of the table. In our lunchroom conformity was the order of the day and your sandwich could determine your social acceptance with little room for diversity.

Queen Rania anchors the new book in what she sees as a greater need for acceptance and understanding in a post-9/11 world. But in an age when most schools are nut-free I wonder if The Sandwich Swap isn't a bit anachronistic. How many children with food allergies are warned by their cautious moms not to taste their friends' lunch, lest it contain milk, eggs, wheat, soy or another food allergen that may result in anaphylaxis and a trip to the emergency room? And the message of such extreme vigilance, rather than teach us about the joys of diversity and difference, would seem to have the opposite impact, heightening our perpetual post-9/11 paranoia.

To her credit, I think the Queen is picking up on an important point by using food as a cultural representation. Because while food allergies may be rampant, most kids today eat sushi and phad Thai and guacamole and have more international palates than ever before. And maybe we can use that as a first step toward world peace. In the meantime, I hope my friend Jen considers sending her daughters to school with some sardines. It will help them build strong bones and strong character.


  1. Haha...I tried sending tuna once or twice, but then all day I was worried that kids would make fun of the smell! But the tuna I used to bring was actually popular; Elly traded for it all the time.

  2. Packing lunch for work is just as daunting. Maybe tomorrow I'll try to swap!

  3. my mom packed our lunches EVERY SINGLE DAY growing up. all 3 of us. its partly because of her that i'm in nutrition now, actually. can you imagine that type of dedication to nutrition when you have 3 kids? looking back, i'm so thankful.

  4. Why didnt you tell me? I would have packed a personal note!