I think I'll just get something from the machine.

Photographer: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

What's French for 'Fantasy Lunches'?

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Images of school lunches from around the world are going viral on social media. They form a stunning contrast between the healthy, appealing meals available at school lunch counters in other countries and the pallid, overprocessed fare that Americans feed their children.

Before you fire up your own social media outrage, however, there's something you should know: These are not images of actual school lunches served in other countries. Debt-ridden Greece doesn't even provide school lunches, as Mother Jones reports. The pictures were staged by Sweetgreen, a chain of East Coast eateries, based on "some typical school meals around the world." School-lunch blogger Bettina Siegel compares these pictures to those of actual school lunches photographed by people eating them, and she finds the reality a little less elegant.

But even before going to the tape, people should have been skeptical. I do believe that France provides nicer school food than our schools do (as Siegel points out, it spends more than we do on school food, so that's not surprising). But I doubt French schools regularly produce top-notch meals, either, because institutional food is very hard to make both cheap and appealing. Since few government budgets will support the cost of giving nutritious, tasty, restaurant-quality lunches to millions of children, it would be fairly shocking if the lunches on the trays looked like the professionally photographed pictures. Also, how come every government in the world is apparently using the same lunch trays?

The quality of American food often leaves a lot to be desired, and in no place is that more true than in our public schools, which generally have to feed huge numbers of kids on a tiny budget while competing with tasty, less-than-wholesome processed alternatives that naturally appeal to kids. But the differences are often exaggerated in the minds of people who imagine Europe to be some combination of travel magazine paradise and progressive think tank white paper. Terrible food is also available in other countries,  and it's even eaten by large numbers of people. If you doubt this, then the next time you find yourself in a European city, head to a supermarket and peruse their convenience-food aisle. And that's what people are buying voluntarily, not what's being fed to them by an institution on a strict budget.

Would I love to have a transatlantic pneumatic tube system that would deliver, say, Parisian bread straight to my door every morning? I sure would. But I wouldn't go to the trouble just to get my hands on what they feed their schoolchildren. School meals can be better or worse, and ours should be better than they are. But "great institutional food" is a phrase that has probably never been spoken in any language.

  1. The worst restaurant meal I have ever eaten, bar none, was in Rome, which was otherwise a culinary paradise.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net