Monday, March 15, 2010

School lunch : France vs. US

A year ago, when my daughter started pre-school in a French private school, we asked about the "lunch option" offered in the school (the school has a contract with the company that provides lunch to the county public schools.) As some of you might know, all schools in France (public or private, big or small, rural or urban) offer a lunch option: la cantine. There is 2-hour lunch break in pre-school and elementary school (from 11.30 am until 1.30pm approximately). Some parents take their children out of school to feed them lunch at home; others opt for the cantine. I grew up eating à la cantine and since my days back in the cantine, I can tell you that the quality improved tremendously. What children eat today in French cantines would sound gourmet food for Americans. It's always a three-(if not four)-course meal that includes everything easy French cuisine can offer: boeuf bourguignon, fish fillets with ratatouille, lentilles and sausages, with fresh vegetables and fruits, the occasional desserts, etc, etc. Yes, children eat pizza and French fries... but not frequently (and way less frequently than I remember it). In short, the meals are balanced,  healthy and affordable.
The price of lunch is calculated according to the parents' income and income taxes. BUT, unless your children go to a private school, even if your income is in the upper-income bracket, I don't think that the price of lunch is above 2 euros ($3). Taxes pay for the difference : yes that's what taxes are used for (among other things if France): making sure that children learn how to eat healthy food at school from very early on. It's a choice the French made for their children (and themselves: office cafeteria is generally very good as well).
So, when I got the lunch menu from my daughter's school, I was in shock! I'm still in shock even if "wholegrain" got into the menu! So much processed food! So much starch! So little variety (because I only printed the March menu but April looks awfully similar!!) The lack of variety of food is what struck me as the most unhealthy. Eating pizza once a week is not going to kill anybody! But eating pizza, hamburger, pasta and French fries one day after the other is not healthy. Désolée! I'm happy to read that the First Lady is taking this matter seriously because, let's face it, it's not helping American children to offer them that type of food one day after the other.Yes, I know, at least it's "food" for some children but I don't understand why, in the wealthiest country in the world, nothing better is offered to the next generation of Americans. I won't go into the details of agriculture subsidies, agro-business lobbying money and their consequences on the school lunch programs because it's complicated. However, from reading what some school districts have done, for instance, in Berkeley (see video) or New York, there is hope that more change is on its way.

In the meantime, I am packing my child's lunch everyday. Mostly leftovers from the night before together with fresh fruits. When I am out of leftovers, I pack her a cheese/ham sandwich. It's easy. It's cheaper than the price I would have to pay for her lunch option. More importantly, it's healthier. The time I spend making her lunch box in the morning (5 minutes) is an investment into her overall health and well-being. And this is priceless! So, what did your children eat in school today? My daughter had leftover home-made lasagna.

If you want to read an article about an American and her experience with school lunch in France, read this article from TIME : School Lunches in France: Nursery-School Gourmets.
If you want to hear more about the lunch programs in the US, I strongly advise you to listen to the following video.


  1. Great post! I'm convinced kid's taste need to be educated...How can we expect kids who never have veggies and are not taught the basics of nutrition to become healthy adults?

    I just gave you an AWARD! Come over & pick it up!

  2. Je pense que la cantine c'est bien comparé aux US mais ca depend vraiment ou tu es. Je me souviens du menu de mon college dans le 12ieme, je t'assure que ca n'a rien a voir avec ce que je viens de lire dans l'article. c'etait poisson pané/riz (non, pas de legumes) trois a quatre fois par semaine! Cela dit OUI les goutes sont eduqués. A Palaiseau on avait meme la semaine du gout et des journées "nationales" (chinois, americain (!), mexicain etc).

  3. The good news is that this leaves ample opportunities to change things. Good luck.

  4. Ah c'est un sujet qui revient tout le temps à l'école !
    La cantine est différente d'une commune à l'autre car cela dépend de la mairie (pour l'école primaire)... alors selon la taille de la ville, il n'y a pas de cantine, ou il y a encore le cuisinier dans l'école ou les repas sont faits en centrale et sont distribués dans les écoles (et là ce n'est pas toujours très bons!). Toutefois, les repas sont sur la semaine équilibrés, et les produits bios font de plus en plus leur apparition !
    Mais bon comme personne n'est jamais content... dans l'école où je suis actuellement (avec sections internationales), les anglo-saxons avaient demandé à rester à l'école entre midi et deux tout en apportant leur lunch-box ! Et cela a été refusé sans l'ombre d'une hésitation.

    Cette année, je ne mange pas à la cantine mais les enfants si et c'est convenable. Il faut ajouter que des repas végétariens ou sans porc sont aussi proposés.