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How school lunches measure up in countries around the world

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Story highlights

Children eat an important meal at school each day: lunch

Here's what lunch is like for kids across countries and how it impacts their health

CNN —  

For many children, it may be their favorite part of the school day: lunchtime.

Yet what’s on the menu for this midday meal can vary drastically, depending on where you live, and even could influence a child’s academic performance.

“When kids eat healthier foods, this can have a really important impact on their cognitive functioning, which can then translate potentially to better academic performance,” said Juliana Cohen, an assistant professor of health sciences at Merrimack College in Massachusetts and adjunct assistant professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“So really, the healthier school meals is a win for both children and for schools,” she said.

In many parts of the world, schools can barely afford classroom supplies, let alone daily meals, but nonprofit organizations or government programs often step in with feeding programs to provide free meals that include meat and veggies.

In other places, school cafeterias sell hot dishes, sandwiches and tiny milk boxes; children might pack a home-cooked meal; or they might go home for lunch.

A spotlight has been turned on what children eat for lunch in the wake of a rising obesity epidemic among the world’s youth. Obesity can increase the risk of chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis and even some cancers.

Globally, the number of overweight or obese children 5 and younger climbed from 32 million in 1990 to 41 million in 2016, according to the World Health Organization.

So what are they eating for lunch, and how could it affect their health? Here is a sampling of how children experience lunchtime around the world.

Where the US stands

“The United States actually has some of the best nutrition standards in the world for school meals in terms of providing healthier foods to children,” Cohen said.

Yet various factors not related to nutrition value – such as the time of day or length of the lunch period – can influence how healthy school lunch can be for a child, she said.

That’s particularly evident in the US, she added.