When an American Mom Joins an Italian School Lunch Committee

Italian sea bass

Extra virgin olive oil

Fresh, organic egg

Breadcrumbs

Parsley

Sea salt

These are the six ingredients in the fish meatballs served in my daughters’ public school lunch program in Rome, Italy.

Italian School Lunch
Photo courtesy of the author

My taste buds were delighted by the rich, home-cooked flavor of a colorful vegetable minestrone, chunks of tender lamb simmered in veggie broth and seasoned with garlic and rosemary and a delicate salad of thinly sliced fennel with extra virgin olive oil and a touch of salt.

Who knew that this omega-rich slab of fish, dredged through egg and a light mixture of breadcrumbs and fresh parsley for baking could cause such an uproar among a sizable group of Italian parents who participate in our “commissione mensa” or school lunch committee.

In pairs of two, our job as school lunch committee volunteers is to make unannounced visits to the school cafeteria at which time we inspect the kitchen for cleanliness, expiration dates on food and sample the lunches our children eat. The first time I took part in one of these visits, I was impressed by the pride with which I saw the school cook discuss the details of the recipes. My taste buds were delighted by the rich, home-cooked flavor of a colorful vegetable minestrone, chunks of tender lamb simmered in veggie broth and seasoned with garlic and rosemary and a delicate salad of thinly sliced fennel with extra virgin olive oil and a touch of salt. After the meal, I called my sister whose children attend public school in New Jersey to brag about the menu and it’s use of fresh, organic, seasonal ingredients.

So imagine my surprise last month when I began receiving email after email from our online committee group members complaining ad nauseam about the aforementioned dish also ironically referred to as “la famosa polpetta di pesce ” or “the famous fish meatball.” Through the emails, I quickly learned that the discourse on fish meatballs dated back to long before either of my daughters attended the school.

Photo courtesy of the author

“My daughter vomited after eating them!” cried a concerned mom.

“They have no flavor!” one father exclaimed.

“Can’t there be another reason a child might vomit after a school lunch? Like the flu?” one mom reasonably asked.

“The fish they’re serving must be bad!” one claimed.

“That’s a serious accusation to say the fish is spoiled. A comment like that could start a lawsuit” another responded.

“I did not say, spoiled. You did!” claimed the accuser. “But it’s a fact that children have vomited after eating them!”

“We really need to find a solution to this problem.” One mom emphasized. “Resorting to fish sticks is clearly NOT an option!”

“We need to plan more inspections to better monitor these meatballs,” commented one dad who appeared to be the voice of reason in the enraged group.

“Did she really just say that?” I’d second-guess myself, turning to Google translate. “Yes she did,” I’d affirm, feeling frustrated about spending my time in this way but grateful still, for the quality of food provided by the school. 

I had originally decided to join the school lunch committee because I thought it was a good way to get to know more about my daughters’ school and also because I see nutrition as important, even medicinal for my growing kids. Years earlier, before I had my own children and worked as a social worker in a Head Start program that provided school lunches to children from low-income families, I helped organize a parent group that could provide feedback to our program nutritionist and protest the absurdity of serving the children menu items like peaches canned in a dense, sugary syrup instead of natural fruit or tortilla chips smothered in a nutrient deficient cheese-like substance rather than a healthy main course.

I thought I had some existing expertise on the issue of school lunch nutrition. But when an Italian father righteously complained about the origins of the lentils in my first committee-planning meeting (the legumes were not locally sourced but came from a northern Italian region rather than Rome, he argued) I knew this was a whole new lunch inspector level and I was way out of my league.

To make matters worse, this endless discussion about fish meatballs flooding my inbox was of course in Italian, and so it would take me twice the effort to read them since Italian is my second language. “Did she really just say that?” I’d second-guess myself, turning to Google translate. “Yes she did,” I’d affirm, feeling frustrated about spending my time in this way but grateful still, for the quality of food provided by the school. I wondered though, how did these other parents find such passion and time to dedicate to this unpopular meatball?

The next time the fish meatballs appeared on the school menu, I paid careful attention to the teacher reports about what my daughters ate that day. Turns out that they’re both fish meatball fans. When I asked them what they had for lunch they emphatically assured me in unison: “polpette di pesce!”

I’m clearly useless to this group of vigilante food inspectors. It’s obvious that as an American, my bar for healthy, delicious food is set much lower. I should have already known this long ago when I first became a mom in Italy. I’ll never forget that six-month wellness checkup at my pediatrician’s office in which she dictated to me a detailed recipe for my daughter’s first lunch. She instructed me on the basics of weighing, steaming and pureeing as I studiously took notes.  I raised my eyebrows at her very specific instructions, never having met a medical doctor willing to take the time to discuss the mundane details of food preparation.

Photo courtesy of the author

I imagined this experience in the U.S. would be much different: perhaps the doctor would indicate some Gerber product that I’d then be instructed to heat and serve. Instead, my pediatrician’s recipe had all the marks of a good Italian meal—seasonal veggies and carefully steamed fish or meat introduced in a specific order (pureed of course) and seasoned sparingly with extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese. While at the time I thought it was incredibly strange to learn how to prepare baby food from a medical doctor, it now seems quite obvious given the strong correlation between good food and good health.

I can thank a food-obsessed culture for influencing my daughter’s appreciation for well-balanced, home-cooked, hot meals.

I’m not sure if I’m completely exhausted by or thankful for the vigilance of the fish meatball naysayers. Maybe both. I can thank a food-obsessed culture for influencing my daughter’s appreciation for well-balanced, home-cooked, hot meals. At her first summer program in the U.S., the YMCA instructed all parents to send our kids to camp every day with a disposable sack containing a sandwich for lunch—a foreign concept to my daughter at the time. My daughter, used to the typical Italian lunch: a first dish of pasta, rice or soup, a second dish of fish or meat, and contorno (or side vegetable) asked me, upon inspecting her lunch that first day: “Mama, but where’s the pasta?”

In the meantime, the emails and meeting discussions persist. Comments from concerned parents reveal their MasterChef level expectations. 

“Can we add potato or pumpkin to sweeten the recipe?” one parent asked. 

“Let’s change the shape and make the recipe into little croquettes,” another suggested. 

Unfortunately, explained the school director, as in most school systems, there is a protocol, and the menu and ingredients, which are the same across all public schools in Rome, cannot be easily changed. And so, all there is left to do, is complain. 

As an American married to an Italian who spends a few months a year in the U.S. with my family, I know a little bit about the Italian phenomenon of excessive complaints related to high culinary standards. 

And still, while the Italian obsession with food often creates for moments of pure comic gold, I finally ask myself: when it comes to our kids, what’s so funny about high expectations? 

– Carolyn Rathjen

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Liza Holland says:

    Wonderful!
    Loved the article and also the memories of our time together at Head Start! You really always make such a positive difference wherever you are!
    Love and miss you!

    Like

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