School lunch abroad

Another way to eat

September 6, 2007

Back to school means back to school lunch. Here’s a meal that has been rightfully singled out as being highly problematic. After all, it’s basically fast food — fatty, highly processed, and very caloric. It’s the recommended diet for those who want to become obese and possibly develop diabetes. Truly, school lunch is one of our country’s greatest shames, especially given that we know it is harmful and that we also know what kids need to be well-nourished.

This spring I joined the International Exchange Forum on Children, Obesity, Food Choice, and the Environment in France’s Loire Valley, where 16 of us met first with each other, then with our French counterparts working in diet and health, and finally in the lunchrooms of two schools. The school lunches we ate were meals I’d be proud to serve.

At one school, students were served a choice of salads — mâche with smoked duck and fava beans, or mâche with smoked salmon and asparagus — followed by guinea fowl with roasted potatoes and carrots and steamed broccoli. For dessert, there was a choice of ripe, red-throughout strawberries or clafoutis. A pungent washed-rind cheese was offered, along with French bread and water. Yes, the kids took and ate the cheese.

French schoolchildren eat in brightly colored lunchrooms. Lunch hour includes exercise and lasts for two hours.

Our second meal was a little simpler, but then, the kids were younger, too. Children served themselves a butter lettuce salad from a bowl set on the table. The main dish was mashed potatoes with a sauce of ground beef (delicious!). Bread and water again were offered as well as the pungent cheese, and a choice of fresh strawberries or a little pastry.

In addition to the goodness of the food, there were other good things about these school lunches. First of all, they weren’t rushed. About two hours are given for lunch, a portion of which is used for very loud and active exercise. Second, they were civilized. Food was served on heated plates; real silverware and glasses — not plastic — were used; and the lunchrooms were pretty and comfortable for the kids.

Instead of teachers blowing whistles and yelling at kids to stop (teachers ate in their own rooms), there was a cadre of women whom I called “the lunch moms,” who, as far as I could tell, were there simply to be helpful. (I’m not sure if they were actually mothers of children at the school.)

These people picked up fallen jackets and sweaters, helped smaller children with their food, set the table for the four-year-olds, answered questions, and would no doubt wipe away tears. One child had brought his lunch, but a school mom transferred it to a plate, like the other kids had.

I watched another “mom” encourage two girls, who had taken more bread than they could eat, to try to finish it so that they wouldn’t be wasting food. They couldn’t finish it, but instead of being scolded, they were gently urged to take less the next time.

In France, schoolchildren are served guinea fowl instead of chicken nuggets.

We poked through the kitchens, pantries, and walk-ins, and saw that everything was amazingly clean; the different walk-ins dedicated to dairy, meat, and fresh fruits and vegetables were all set at the appropriate temperatures. Although European Union rules say that purchases can’t favor locale, we did see quite a few locally grown foods. And school cooks don’t have to order the cheapest foods, so quality clearly comes first.

Who gets to have these meals? All the kids, regardless of their parents’ incomes. They cost about three times as much as our school lunches do, a cost that is shared among the school and local government bodies, such as the mayor’s office. As for those vending machines that we have such a hard time getting rid of, they were banned in France three years ago. Banned.

What impressed me most of all about the French school lunch was not just the deliciousness of the food, but that everything about it — the brightly decorated lunchrooms, the gorgeous kitchens, the lunch moms, the chefs — sent such a deep message of caring. To my ears it fairly screamed, “We care about and love our children. They are us, after all, and we want them to eat well and be nourished.”

Unfortunately, that is about the last message American school lunch sends to our children. Instead, we’re saying, “We have to feed you something; it’s gotta be cheap, and we don’t really care about it or you.” This doesn’t mean that those who put the meals out feel that way, but they are mostly given nothing to work with, be it pots and pans or the knowledge about how to do things, like ripen fruit so that it tastes good when it’s offered.

But there are good people chipping away at our school-lunch problem to offer a better solution and a more caring message. There are schools that enjoy a farmers’-market salad bar, and schools that have big school gardens. There are movements in New Mexico, Oregon, and other states to put local food on the table, especially fruits and vegetables. There are programs, like Cooking with Kids in Santa Fe, in which cooking classes are tied into the class curriculum; in turn, the learned dishes are added to the lunch menu to build more diversity. And there is the amazing Ann Cooper, who is gradually making lunch in all the Berkeley, California, schools better in every way. Yes, there are areas where hope prevails.

If you know some examples of success in the uphill climb to a better American school lunch, let me know here in the comments section. I hope — and bet — we’ll see hundreds of great things happening in the year ahead!

Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. She lives in New Mexico.

Also on Culinate: Deborah reminds us to savor the taste of local foods, and Roz Cummins interviews her.

There are 13 comments on this item
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1. by anonymous on Sep 7, 2007 at 5:18 PM PDT

I taught in French public elementary schools for two years, and while there is much to criticize about French schools, I agree that school lunches were very well-done. Actual food aside(I certainly never ate smoked duck at any of my schools, although I had many pungent cheeses), the pleasant atmosphere, adequate and caring staff (no, those aren’t moms, those women are paid), and sufficient time alloted for lunch make a huge difference. At the schools where I worked, students also weren’t allowed to choose skimpy, unhealthy lunches, such as a yogurt and cookies, and they also couldn’t throw away a large part of their lunch, which I see my American students do all the time. The cafeteria staff felt a real sense of responsibility and pride in their job and I was very impressed at the effort that they put into their work.

Overall, French elementary schools are shockingly underfunded, with huge class sizes and a skeletal teaching staff (no gym teachers, art teachers, music teachers, librarians, social workers, etc. There are also no gyms or computer labs.) But there certainly are excellent cafeterias.

2. by Suzi on Sep 10, 2007 at 4:10 PM PDT

Gotta add one thing: Deborah Madison, not all diabetes results from diet. The type children are far more likely to get (as kids) is Type 1, an autoimmune disease that is totally unrelated to what’s in a school lunch (or a home dinner or a cereal box). Let’s get the facts straight, shall we? (Though lord knows I’d rather be eating lunch in France, myself.)

3. by Catherine on Sep 11, 2007 at 10:56 AM PDT

My take on it is that Deborah’s comment was slightly ‘tongue in cheek’ as obviously nobody really wants to develop diabetes. She was likely referring to Type 2 diabetes (which is related to obesity) and though much more common in adults, Type 2 rates in children have been on the rise in recent years. Not surprising given the climbing obesity rates for children.

4. by Deborah Madison on Sep 14, 2007 at 9:41 AM PDT

Thanks all for your comments! I do understand the differences between type I and II diabetes — space was limited — I didn’t differentiate!
Yes, those “lunch moms” (as I called them) are indeed paid to do what they do and are not volunteering mothers. In fact, I surprisingly large part of the budget went to pay for their services.

I guess like everywhere, there are good and poor examples of successful lunch programs, even in France. Perhaps what we saw were some of the best examples, but what examples to aspire to! I visited a school yesterday, here in Santa Fe, that has a sustainabily based program, and watched the kids eating Domino’s pizza and Oreo cookies for lunch. No tables to sit at. No plates. No salad. No fruit. When I got home I had a message from a farmer begging people to come pick his fruit! What is sustainable? How can we bridge these gaps? I guess that’s just some of the work that’s cut out for us.

5. by Farmgirl Susan on Oct 24, 2007 at 10:35 AM PDT

Thank you for starting this column. I haven’t commented before, but I always enjoy reading your thoughtful and informative articles.

The comment in your very first one, from the farmer who had to resort to using chemicals or lose her entire crop because people don’t want to buy produce that has bug bites or spots on it, had a profound effect on me. I think about that every time I harvest something from my organic kitchen garden that doesn’t look anywhere near perfect--which is much of the time! Funny how it always tastes wonderful, though.

I often daydream about what a different country this would be if nourishing, delicious, “real food” meals like the ones served at these French schools were available in our own schools--and hospitals! : )

6. by anonymous on Oct 25, 2007 at 5:11 PM PDT

I am currently a student of French class, and one of the things my teacher emphisizes is the great lunches in French schools. Unlike the US, they have almost 2 hours to finish their lunches, unlike the 25 minutes our school gets. They also have many choices, and healthy ones at that. We, on the other hand, have fast food, and almost no choices. I feel that the US needs to step up in bettering the lunches of our schools for the kids’ sake.

7. by anonymous on Oct 25, 2007 at 5:18 PM PDT

I also have to add..,
I must disagree with you on one thing. You see, you stated that all of the different food groups were at their correct temperature, and you sounded surprised. It would be illegal to give out “scientifically” unhealthy food - like barely cooked meat, and so-on. But I must admit, I do see half cooked meals in our school, and it dissapoints me greatly. One student actually died at a school from eating uncooked meat, not even 20 minutes away from our’s. So I must apologize for my rudeness, because not all people set the correct temps. Thanks for bearing with me!

8. by anonymous on Oct 25, 2007 at 5:21 PM PDT

I have to ask...
Who exactly is helping our schools to better the lunches. Nobody has been mentioned to me, and I am a profound researcher on the subject.

9. by Deborah Madison on Nov 5, 2007 at 2:04 PM PST

Farmgirl Susan: Thank you for your comment! Once you garden, you see how limited we become regarding how food is supposed to look, as if
there is one way! So much food is discarded, or passed by when it isn’t, because it doesn’t look quite right — it’s too big or too small, eggplants have noses, carrot have legs, kale has holes in the leaves. (I’ve also had some first hand experience from my own garden!) It seems to be a
universal, though, not just something we do here. Yes, it would be a different world if we served “real food” to everyone, at any time.

Anonymous: And a good part of the two hours, as far as we could see, were spent running around the schoolyard, so the kids ate at a civilized pace and got lots of loud, happy, unstructured exercise!

I didn’t think you were being rude, nor are we in disagreement, but what surprised that the cheese was served at room temperature, rather than cold, as we so commonly eat it here. But what really surprised and impressed me and it wasn’t the temperatures of the food, but the temperatures of the various cold storage areas, each which was set for what was stored within —produce, dairy, meats. It’s terrible that children should be served half-cooked meals, and clearly with dire results, as you have pointed out.

And finally, as far as I can tell, and I’m not, like you, yet a profound researcher on the subject, those who are helping to improve school lunches are not the schools as much as people outside of them who care greatly about this. The Chez Panisse Foundation, for example, hired Ann Cooper to work with the Berkeley schools to improve all lunches in that school system. Local organizations come at lunches from different angles. In my community, Cooking with Kids is a program that has been working within public schools for the past ten years to help the women running the programs be able to do a better job at what they do, give them tools to do so, and at the same time educate children in such a way that they will be open to the better quality foods they encounter on their lunch lines. The Farm to School program here has worked to bring locally grown fruits and vegetables into the lunch programs. (There is also a national Farm to School program.) A school garden and kitchen program, recently begun in a local charter school here (where there is not cafeteria), is managing to, on occasion, make and serve food that comes from the garden — a fresh tomato sauce, salads— and that will no doubt continue as the garden project grows. I would love to know that schools are making big changes on their own, but it seems to me that much of the change is coming in bits and pieces from interested and caring citizens who have made it a priority to be involved.

10. by Karyl Kent on Jun 24, 2008 at 4:05 AM PDT

A wonderful article that sparked my imagination. Having just accepted a position as head cook for an elementary school after years of restaurant and catering work, I am looking forward to working in my community to improve school lunches and create a green cafeteria.
An inspirational program is that of Brewster Pierce Memorial School in Huntington, VT. Head Cook Alison has worked to teach children about nutrition, taste testing new foods, and bringing fresh and local produce to the cafeteria tables. She has been recognized by the State and is treasured by her community and students. The great lunches she provides are made possible largely through fundraising to afford fresher foods. And although the community rallies to this cause, it is a sad note that school lunch programs would need to fund raise to afford healthier foods for our kids.

11. by Severine on Feb 1, 2010 at 5:04 PM PST

The “mashed potatoes with a sauce of ground beef " is called Hachis Parmentier.

Also, to the person who was teaching in a French elementary school: our physical education was done by the teacher. That’s part of their job. I was going to the swimming pool (lessons were given by a swimming instructor), playing golf, tennis... You get a physical education teacher once you are in 6th grade. You also need to know that most kids are doing extra-curricular activities on Wednesdays since there is no school. The city takes care of it. You can play soccer, swim, ballet dance...or play an instrument.
Also, I had art classes in elementary school. And I was on a computer in 1st grade (this was back in 1989/1990). But most of what you mention becomes the norm in 6th grade.
Each class usually has a library in a corner of the room. It’s up to the teacher to set it up and run it.
Also, why would you want a social worker in the school? The parents get all the assistance they need through the Assitante Sociale, Caisse d’Assurance Familiale....

12. by anonymous on Feb 22, 2012 at 3:01 PM PST

Im a student at a high school and i chose to not eat lunch this year because the quality of the food was so low. I turned to the vending machines instead, and then they got bad too. I honestly can say, if food like that in France were to be served here, i would gladly pay more and i definetly would eat lunch more.

13. by anonymous on Feb 22, 2012 at 3:01 PM PST

Im a student at a high school and i chose to not eat lunch this year because the quality of the food was so low. I turned to the vending machines instead, and then they got bad too. I honestly can say, if food like that in France were to be served here, i would gladly pay more and i definetly would eat lunch more.

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Deborah Madison, the celebrated cookbook author and local-food advocate, feeds us with her occasional reflections. Her latest book is Vegetable Literacy.

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