Back in my day, I would eat what I was given, which was a Glad Wrapped Marmite sandwich, a piece of fruit and a packet of raisins.
Muesli bars burst on to the school scene a few years after me and ushered in a new era of convenience food of increasingly questionable nutritional value. Mini bags of chips appeared around the same time. Fruit roll-ups and Le Snaks came a bit later. These and many other foil-wrapped conveniences passed through my plain plastic box at various times for various durations and I turned out all right, in spite of the chronic anxiety, overactive bowel, occasional bouts of depression, excessive introversion and inability to cope with minor frustrations.
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My childhood took place in the 80s. Since then we've seen the rise of the mass circulation culinary magazine, the celebrity chef, food-based reality television, food-based television networks, Jamie's School Dinners, peanut allergies and gluten intolerance. We've seen the cancer-related decline of smoked meats, the demonisation of carbs, the death of sugar and the rehabilitation of butter. We've had body shaming, body positivity and body neutrality. Through all this, our depictions of, relationships with, and attitudes toward food have been radically altered.
To get a sense for how all this has affected lunches on today's rubberised playgrounds, I sought the testimony of my 6-year-old daughter. She is neither a forthcoming nor reliable source of information - she frequently lies and, without fail, every night at the dinner table when we ask about her day, she says, "Can't remember." She was, nevertheless, my closest on-the-ground source. After heavy questioning, she yielded the following intelligence: one of her friends brings sandwiches, two bring cut vegetables, one brings chips.
Several parental sources, all more reliable than my daughter, say sushi has been the big mover in school lunchboxes in the last decade. It wasn't possible to buy sushi in, or anywhere near, Pakuranga in the 1980s and, if it had been and if my mum had put it in my lunchbox, I would have chucked it in one of the densely foliated properties along Cardiff Rd. To be seen eating seaweed and raw fish in the primary school playground, in an era when even salami was considered exotic, would have ended me. The contents of a child's lunchbox are not just nutrition but socialisation.
On the day I wrote this, my daughter's lunchbox included some grapes, mini pretzels, a bun with nothing in it, a raspberry-flavoured yoghurt suckie and a Cameo Creme biscuit. She didn't eat the pretzels.
My wife tells me bento-style lunchboxes are now omnipresent. This is verifiable on Instagram, which is probably also largely responsible for the trend, with its endless scroll of hideously aspirational lunchbox after grotesquely organised lunchbox. I take the bento box movement as a sign of the times: environmentally conscious, image-conscious, paternalistic. My 6-year-old's bento box is so controlling it has spaces labelled with the names of the things it expects us to put in there: "grains", "fruit", "protein", etc. It also has pictures illustrating what those things look like, in case we're stupid, which we probably are, since we bought one. It's the nanny state gone mad in the free market.
The Instagram of Maria Foy, arguably New Zealand's leading mummy blogger, reveals plentiful insights into the modern lunchbox. One of Foy's most recent posts, sponsored by JAZZ™ apples, depicts a bento box containing popcorn, pretzels, cherry tomatoes, cheese chunks, crustless white bread sandwiches, grapes and the aforementioned JAZZ™ apples. "Sometimes it's hard to find an apple that actually fits in lunchboxes," Foy writes, "Well now there are JAZZ™ Juniors. They're the perfect size for lunchboxes and little hands, so there's no need for slicing."
Is this the kind of world we now live in? Where lunchbox manufacturers can effectively render regular fruit useless to our children? A check of leading lunchbox retail site lunchboxqueen.co.nz reveals the answer to be "yes". Of the company's 16 lunchbox models, only four can accommodate a small apple.
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Fair enough, these are all good points but here are some others: between 1982 and 2016 the percentage of kids living in poverty in this country doubled from 14 to 28. KidsCan estimated last year that 55,000 New Zealand children were going to school without lunch once or more a week. More than 160,000 kids now live in households without access to either enough food or enough healthy food. In other words, the compilation and presentation of school lunches is important only if you can afford it to be.
For the majority of her lunchbox Insta shots, Foy uses a stainless steel Planet Box Rover, which she got free for review purposes but which will cost you $100.95 from lunchboxinc.co.nz. If you scroll back far enough in Foy's feed, you can find a photo of a lunch she'd prepared in a standard two litre icecream container. Inside are a few Cruskits, a handful of popcorn, a pot of yoghurt, an unpeeled banana, a mandarin and - sitting proudly in the upper right - what appears to be a full-sized apple. Underneath, she has written: "I couldn't care less if you spent $2 on a lunchbox, used a plastic bag or spent $80. All I care about is that a child has food."