I miss my lunchbox. In my early school years I went through several. My favourite was probably the Evel Knievel daredevil edition, in death-defying red-white-and-blue. What a great invention, with its embossed drawings and bright colours. In the more stressful moments of the financial crisis, as penny-pinching exercise I took to preparing a ‘lunchbox’ to work. As I travel even more now, and try to keep fitness-fueled for a big run soon, I still end up carrying my own food with me. No lunchbox these days, but maybe I can find one at a flea market or at auction somewhere?

One other reason I have such vivid memories of the lunchbox is because of what was typically inside. Or what wasn’t. Kids would come to school with their lunchboxes brimming with triple-decker roast-beef sandwiches, Twinkie cakes, bags of Lays potato chips, all washed down with that most prized drink among schoolyard someliers, a pint of Hershey’s chocolate milk. Most of the lunchtime luggage my classmates brought with them was like miniature cornucopias of suburban delight. A brisk barter would usually ensue as we all sat down to eat. ‘I’ll trade you a Hostess apple pie for your Tastycake… Two Oreos for a bite of your brownie?’.

I did not take part in this spontaneous marketplace. How I wanted to! But while other pupils’ lunchboxes were bursting with exotic flavours, mine often sounded kinda empty when you knocked on it. It wasn’t empty, but when I opened it, there seemed to be an echo emanating from the inside. Flat bread sandwiches with liverwurst were a staple. Usually with an apple and a pot of plain yoghurt. The lunchbox was rarely filled to capacity. Its contents were conspicuously devoid of branding. Not exactly the sort of merchandise that will command a premium in the schoolyard exchange. Sitting it out on one end of the dining table didn’t really bother me. For one thing, my friends were usually quite generous with their bounty.

Now in retrospect, I praise my parents for the relatively spartan regime. They were pretty radical with nutrition by the standards of the time. Even today, it would probably strike some people as extreme to drive five hours from Philadelphia to Connecticut, to stock up on a station wagon full of dark rye bread. Only the nuns of Putnam made anything quite so hearty. And so our freezer was typically packed with bricks of the stuff, brought out to thaw like chunks of permafrost tundra throughout the year. Other kids got BLT or PB&J. We got dunkelbrot with sardines.

These days, I know which I would prefer to serve my girls. And I wonder, what are the flavours that they will grow up to remember?

Proust had his madeleine. I might have preferred something other than dunkelbrot with sardines for nostalgia. Living in Portugal, I get to relive those lunch time moments often these days!  It had me wondering what school kids around the world are served for lunch nowadays, and how. For our Girls, soup of course is part of the lunchtime routine in Portugal. I’m told that the lasagne is very good. It seems unlikely that these will serve as their ‘madeleine’, but who knows? Food and flavour are wrapped up in memory. Tastes and smells will marinate in our minds over the years, and may come back too haunt us when we least expect them to.

“Not so long ago, food was food…. That’s not true anymore. Food is now politics and ethics as much as it is sustenance.” Nowhere is this more true perhaps than in the United States, where I grew up, and where there rages a partisan debate about school lunches. It seems extraordinary that the First Lady’s campaign to get schoolchildren eating more healthily could be regarded as anything but a blessing. And yet, it seems to be the states most beset by obesity and poor health that Republican politicians against the healthy eating initiative have the most support. Americans may be increasingly disenchanted by Big Food, but it seems that the US is some way from school lunches that are free from politics and processed food.

How can America have become so confused about food? Perhaps it’s the lack of culinary roots in a melting pot culture that’s eats fusion almost by definition. Or maybe that’s simply where Food Inc. has made the greatest inroads (very likely as a result of the melting pot). Certainly, most of what we find on supermarket shelves today our great-grandparents would not have recognised as food. That probably counts for many school lunches as well. The commoditisation of food extends well beyond American shores, and the pervasiveness of branded, processed food has not made lunchtime any easier.

Phys-Ed is a classroom staple. Nutri-Ed or Food-Ed can join the curriculum. Children can learn gardening. For parents and young readers, there’s a lot of material to turn to these days, including a junior version of the Omnivore’s Dilemma, or resources from Jamie Oliver’s Food Foundation, not to mention numerous documentaries like Fed Up, featured previously on Pirouete, and other resources that can teach kids a lot. Pirouette has featured a vegetarian school with demonstrably better academic results. What better way to teach good eating habits than getting kids involved in eating food that you cook yourself.

Food has lost its innocence. It sometimes seems like Foodism, Fooding and Food Fetishism has gotten out of hand. Everyone seems to have a favourite celebrity chef. We’re mesmerised by gastro-propaganda. Intolerances can sometimes seem more like fashion accessories than food concerns. It’s easy to mock bobo ‘locavore’ habits, but nutritional matters are much more than merely aesthetic. If nutrition has become politicised, that’s maybe no bad thing. Slow Food and the many conscious eating movements of recent years are helping to re-educate us all about what once seemed so simple. Nostalgia is not always reactionary. “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” Michael Pollan advises. It’s time to get Old School about school lunches again.