As the shrill bell rang, I excitedly opened my lunchbox, hungry and eager to see what delights my mom had packed me today. My face lit up to the sweet aroma of rousong bread, my favorite Taiwanese delicacy.
My peers, however, were eyeing my food suspiciously. “Ew, what’s that smell!” “Why is there fur on your bread?” Before I knew it, my friends had taken their cafeteria sandwiches and left to sit at another table.
Fueled by ignorance and the lingering presence of outdated “All-American” ideals, these xenophobic actions push a sense of inferiority onto other cultures. Being exposed to these cruel comments at a young age can have detrimental effects on children’s self-esteem. In Will Jay’s hit song “I Can Only Write My Name,” he writes of a painful truth that many of my fellow Asians can attest to: feeling ashamed of our culture and rejecting it as a child, only to grow up regretting how much we missed out on.
School lunch menus must showcase more ethnically diverse foods, as early exposure to diversity reaps long-term benefits in combating ignorance and transforming the racial attitudes of future generations.
A recent study in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology conducted by Larissa M. Gaias and Diana E. Gal of Arizona State University found that primary school exposure to diversity longitudinally decreases students’ racial bias and promotes inclusive behavior. Preschool exposure to diverse material was associated with having more cross-race friends, with sustainable results lasting to third grade and beyond. Food is an integral part of our daily lives, so it’s a great way to teach students to acknowledge and embrace differences and foster lifelong acceptance.
While critics may contend that students won’t want to eat these foods and it will just end up in the trash, in the New York Times article “Feeding Young Minds: The Importance of School Lunches,” Jane E. Brody discusses how the transition to healthier meal options fared in schools. Three studies by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that food waste declined in 12 Connecticut schools under improved nutrition rules, and “greater variety led to healthier choices.”
Overall, students will eat things if we make them accessible. If students can adapt to healthy options, why can’t they adapt to diverse options?
Early exposure is pivotal. Our very first notions of difference, acceptance, compassion, and identity stem from our elementary school days. Therefore, it’s crucial that schools provide a positive, nurturing experience. By feeding students diverse foods, schools are nourishing young minds with diverse ideas and cultivating racial tolerance and awareness in the next generations.
While we can’t give people back the lives they’ve missed out on, we can prevent the scars of cultural shaming and take the next steps on the long journey to equality.