When it comes to food, the French do many things right: Champagne, cheese, baguettes, ratatouille, croissants, cafe au lait, and herbs fines, to name a few. It seems they take their school lunches just as seriously, which may help explain why the whole culture deeply cares for their food. The French instill an appreciation for good food at an early age and believe children should learn how to make sound choices about what they eat.
Here are a few lunch menu items from a Paris school district as reported by School Lunch Talk: Basque chicken thigh with herbs, couscous, organic yogurt, cucumbers with garlic and herbs, bell peppers with olive oil and herbs, and an apple. Other menu items include grilled fish with herbs, lentils and sausage, apple tarts, salad, stewed carrots, haricot verts (delicious thin green beans), and an array of cheeses. From this small sampling of foods, we can see just how varied their lunches are, giving children a wide variety of tastes. This is heightened by the fact that French schools do not repeat meals in a month; a feat almost as amazing as the menu items.
Basque chicken thighs are such a far cry from American school lunches, I’m tempted just to stop right here. Something-breaded-on-a-white-bun, canned vegetables, fruit/salad bar (which is a good development), cake or a cookie, and milk. Yes, there are USDA guidelines on fat and sodium content, and I truly do not believe they are being met by many schools. Especially in high schools with a “fast food” lane. This lane serves items such as cheeseburgers, foot-long hot dogs, pizza pockets, and milk shakes. Yes, your child can eat like that at school. Though the fresh fruit and salad bar are always an option, students can skip it entirely if they choose.
Which lunch costs more? The French one, of course. With a price tag of about $8 each, American schools could not possibly afford to serve up meals like their French counterparts. The French meals are highly subsidized, taking most of the burden off the schools. American school lunches are subsidized as well, but a better lunch comes with a higher price tag, and today’s subsidy will not suffice.
Another drawback is how American schools serve lunch today. Many schools no longer employee cooks; they contract the lunch out to companies who prepare it off-site. The servers heat, assemble and serve it. Changing how our kids eat would also mean changing how and where their food is being prepared.
With the alarming rise in childhood obesity and diabetes, maybe it’s time we made these changes. Some schools around the country have started with school gardens and buy-local initiatives; each one makes a difference. Whenever a school district and a community work together to bring better food to their children, it sends a message to USDA that the National School Lunch Program doesn’t suffice. Only by insisting that our children get quality food will their school lunches improve. Somehow, I don’t think French fries and French toast is quite good enough.
Two articles on French school lunches: Teaching Kids to Eat Healthy and School Lunches Talk: Country Watch.