Back in November, students across the United States started tweeting pictures of their lunches with a snarky hashtag: #ThanksMichelleObama. The photos featured mushy blobs, whole-grain breads, and fruit on food trays that used to hold Tater Tots and pizza.
Sweetgreen’s photo series, which compares school lunches around the world, portrays the typical American school lunch a bit more generously. Alongside peas and a fruit cup are mashed potatoes, chicken, and ketchup. There’s even a chocolate-chip cookie. Still, compared with images depicting meals from other countries, it looks just as sad as the students’ photos.
The salad chain began Sweetgreen in Schools in 2010 to teach kids about healthy eating “while making it fun,” said Nicolas Jammet, who cofounded Sweetgreen back in 2007. “It started with a one-week curriculum in Washington, D.C., and has grown into a series of wellness workshops reaching more than 1,000 students across D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and New York City each year.”
The workshops have lesson plans with activities for students that promote eating local, in-season, and sustainable food. Sweetgreen also partners with the national nonprofit FoodCorp, to which 1 percent of all purchases made through the chain’s rewards app goes.
“We’re strong believers in what Michelle Obama’s doing and hope that her efforts, as well as ours, will change the way younger generations are eating, in and out of schools,” said Jammet.
Sweetgreen created the photo series as a “fun, educational piece of content,” he said. Posted on the company’s Tumblr, the caption brings attention to meals served in American schools: “Did you know that on a typical day, 32 million children in the U.S. eat cafeteria food? Or that most of these students consume over half of their daily calories at school?” it reads.
To be sure, some of the meals from other countries look as unhealthy as the American version (if not more so). After all, the U.S. doesn’t have the highest childhood obesity rate, according to a 2014 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. And to make the meals depicted in the photos, Sweetgreen looked at data from government standards for school lunch programs and sifted through social media for photos from students around the world.
The process wasn’t exactly scientific, as The Lunch Tray points out, and Sweetgreen concedes that it didn’t intend to show “exact representations” of school lunches. But the series nonetheless begins an important conversation about the meals schools offer kids, and how they affect childhood obesity rates. Click through for the facts behind the photos.