School Lunches: Is Your Child A Victim Of Lunchbox Bullying?

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Your child opens up his lunchbox and takes out the food you so lovingly pulled together that morning. It's chana masala or falafel or pork buns or kimchi -- the cuisine of your family's culture. Your child's schoolmates, who brought cheese sandwiches and fruit roll-ups for their lunches, take one look at his home-cooked meal:

"Ew, that smells weird."
"What's that? It looks yucky."
"Your lunch is gross."

Your child is embarrassed, hurt and self-conscious. The next day, he refuses to take the food they love to school. Sound like a heart-breaking scenario?

Seema Pabari can relate. Her son has always gone to school with the home-cooked South Asian food of his heritage, but around grade three or four, he decided he didn't want to anymore.

"This was a real challenge in my home," she says. "He noticed people were making fun of him because his food was different from others and he went through a phase saying, "I don't want to eat like this, I want pizza and sandwiches.""

As the owner of Tiffinday, a business that delivers vegan South Asian lunches to offices around Toronto, Pabari was adamant her child should be able to enjoy the food of his heritage without feeling embarrassed.

"I had to have a chat with him to make him proud of South Asian food and I said, "Just remember, three quarters of the world's population eats rice for lunch." And that was his comeback line, the next time that somebody made fun of him, he could say, "You know, more people in the world eat like me than eat like you.""

Pabari's son is now 10 and happy to bring curries and samosas to school. But lunchbox bullying is a problem that many Canadian children will encounter this year. Alyson Schafer, parenting expert and author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids, agrees that a good one-liner can be a useful way to combat unkind comments about "different" lunch food.

"Just a little line in their pocket, "Try it you might like it," or "That's OK, I don't want to share it anyways, more for me!" You want to give them something so they're not standing there dumb-founded," she says. "I think you can also ask your child, "Why do you think [other students] might be saying that?" Look at it from the other child's perspective. What we know is other people's initial reaction to something new or novel is often to have a negative attitude -- "I don't get that, I haven't seen it before, so therefore it's bad.""

Ann Douglas, Parent Central's parenting guru and author of The Mother of All Parenting Books, says it might be a good idea to let the teacher know if your child is experiencing this sort of teasing because they might be unaware it's going on. "It is cultural bullying and is not OK," she says. You can also ask the teacher if you can help the other children understand your child's food choices a little better.

"In a lot of schools they have multicultural days," she says. "Say you'd love to bring in enough [cultural dishes] to share with your child's classmates. And if you have a bunch of parents do the same, then everybody can try things. Of course, there are some foods some kids won't like and that's fine, but they can be polite about it. It's a good lesson in etiquette."

And what if it's your child who's making the mean comments? Douglas says it's important to let them know that kind of behaviour is rude and that it's important to be respectful of other peoples' cultures. "Point out if you looked at banana bread and you'd never seen that before, that might look slimy and gross to you," she says. "And remind them that all the foods we consider to be North American, like spaghetti and pizza, came from other cultures. We've adopted them."

If your child's negative attitude toward different cultural dishes persists, Schafer says it's important to determine if those views might actually be coming from you.

"Kids do come into the world with an open mind and curiosity and you have to be taught to hate, to judge and reject," she says. "So part of it is to catch yourself. Do you find yourself saying derogatory things about certain groups, like "All men are lazy," or other acts of judgment? We might be training our kids to be intolerant in the face of difference."

Expose your children to diverse foods by checking out cultural festivals in your city or frequenting new restaurants. Try culturally diverse recipes at home with your kids and have them mark on a world map the different national cuisines they have sampled.

"Look at your own menu at home," says Douglas. "If you're always having mashed potatoes and meatloaf -- really bland things -- maybe your kids have just never been exposed to anything that's different or exciting or contains anything other than pepper. They're probably freaked out by anything that has colour or spice to it."

Our #FoodFight discussion on Twitter continued when we asked you if you had ever been teased for your culturally different school lunches. Here's a round-up of some of your best responses on Twitter.

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Do you know what your kids are eating at school? OpenFile and Huffington Post Canada team up for an insightful and comprehensive examination of the issue of school lunches. Over the next week, we look at what school cafeterias are serving and what parents are (and should be) packing. We examine the idea of "lunchroom racism," report on the impact of corporate sponsorships on school lunches, and reveal how are school boards tackling these and other issues. Join the discussion here or on Twitter by using the #FoodFight hashtag.