Mt. Lebanon, Scotland students join cultural exchange hosted by USDA

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Eighth graders at Jefferson Middle School in Mt. Lebanon bonded -- via Skype -- with some new friends at Brannock High School in Scotland last week to celebrate the first International School Meals Day. The two classes discussed cafeteria fare and favorite foods, and they cleared up some misconceptions about their respective cultures.

"We were one of nine school districts in the country asked by the USDA to participate in a cultural exchange with a school in Scotland," Tazeen Chowdhury, food service director at Mt. Lebanon, said of Friday's event.

The district was selected after receiving the Healthier U.S. School Challenge award, which was presented to the district's seven elementary schools in September. A component of first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative, the award recognizes those schools that promote healthier environments through nutrition and physical activity.

Brannock High School is in North Lanarkshire, about 50 miles south of Glasgow. Like Mt. Lebanon, its entire student body walks to school.

Fourth graders from Washington Elementary also communicated that day with Findochty Primary School in Scotland, but via email since Skype is not available at that Scottish school.

Along with the USDA, International School Meals Day is supported by several agencies in the United Kingdom, including the Scottish Government, the Welsh Assembly and the British Council. The objective is to raise awareness of nutrition in school meals, emphasize the connection between healthy eating and better learning and highlight research activities worldwide. It also promotes a positive connection between children of different nations. Participants also included Taiwan, Northern Ireland, Pakistan and England.

Addressing the students across the pond on a large screen in the front of their classroom, Jefferson students asked about their favorite foods.

"All the girls said simultaneously, 'chocolate,' " eighth grade teacher Mark Kramer said. Students also discovered that Scots enjoy steak and "mash pies," a dish of minced beef in a pastry with mashed potatoes.

"The conversation was more about how much they had in common and not differences," Ms. Chowdhury noted. Not surprisingly, pizza, burgers and fries are also popular with students everywhere.

The Jefferson students also found out that their Scottish friends love McDonald's but "turn their noses up" to haggis, the traditional Scottish dish made with sheep's heart, liver and lung, spices and oatmeal that is encased in animal stomach or sausage casing, Ms. Chowdhury said.

Nutritional guidelines at Brannock are similar to those in the United States, except the Scottish students get dessert with their buffet-style lunches. Desserts were eliminated from U.S. school lunch menus this school year with the new federal guidelines as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.

According to a 2012 report from the Scottish government, 14 percent of 2- to 15-year-olds in that country were considered obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 percent of U.S. children ages 6 to 19 are considered obese.

"I think we broke the stereotype that they thought we were all fat," Mr. Kramer said, adding that the students enjoyed seeing one another live while they spoke. Students agreed to continue conversations about much more than their favorite foods through email and Facebook.

"Our plan is to gather and send them some American treats -- items they don't have there, like Gobstoppers, Pixy Stix and Hershey's Kisses," Mr. Kramer said.

But, of course, only in moderation, he noted.

Linda Canning, health teacher at Brannock said her students were impressed by the way USA school menus are presented. "They look modern and colorful and there is plenty of nutritional detail,'' Ms. Canning said in an email.

She said the classes plan on another Skype session to get reactions about the food gifts.

neigh_south

Laurie Bailey, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com. First Published March 21, 2013 12:00 AM


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