What School Lunch in France Can Teach us Back Home in the U.S.

Poached cod and potatoes with lemon butter, sautéed haricot verts, and fresh avocado -- sound like a meal from Heartland or Spoonriver? Well, that’s what I had for lunch recently at College Simin de Palay, a junior high school in the town of Lescar, France. And as good as the meal sounds, the story behind it is equally appealing.

But first, like a good meal, we need a little appetizer. In Minnesota and across the nation, health care and education reform are topics of high importance. And from the First Lady to five-star generals, more and more people are making the connection between what our students eat in school and how it affects health, well-being, and academic performance. On the heels of Simple, Good, and Tasty’s, exposition on Minneapolis school lunch, I wanted to share my recent visit to Lescar, where I experienced first-hand how the school prepares meals for its students and learned directly about their approach to school lunch.

On a rainy Wednesday morning with the Pyrenees under a shroud of fog and clouds, I was met by the Philippe Douborj, the head of the school; Madam Jean-Grange, School Treasurer; Florence Iritz, translator and former teacher; and Chef Moulia. Before moving on, I want to thank them all for their generous reception and fascinating insight. I also want to thank my friend Zen and her family for all the work they did arranging the day and accompanying my visit. France is known for its great cuisine, but it is also home to great people. My hosts explained that lunch is just one of the many ways the school welcomes and cares for students from the moment they enter the building, and I enjoyed the same treatment.

As Monsieur Doubourj explained, the French Ministry of Education makes sure students are fed on school grounds -- there are no “open lunch” or fast food runs here. The individuals in charge of food purchasing and preparation are leading a push to include more vegetables and utilize as many local ingredients as possible. They see this as a way to help the local agricultural economy and to ensure students have access to healthy, sustainable, and fresh food. On my day at Simin Palay, there were boxes of fresh greens in the kitchen, and meat from a farm just 35 miles a way was on its way for Friday’s meal. As a local food lover myself, I was thoroughly impressed by this commitment in French schools.

And while intention is one thing, execution is another. This school seemed to have it down pat. Chef Moulia showed me the many rooms in the professional-grade kitchen where food is stored and prepared, and the facility offered a sharp contrast to the “heat-and-serve” kitchens predominant in U.S. schools. Every part of each meal is washed, cut and cooked fresh in the kitchen. Before preparation even begins, ingredients like meat, vegetables, and dairy are stored in individual temperature controlled units to ensure freshness and quality. As I saw on my visit, when meat arrives, Chef Moulia records the temperature of the meat and the truck, and enters this along with the source information in a database. This is done to promote food quality and safety, and to allow for easy identification and tracking of problems should they arise. It’s just one example of the school’s commitment to quality and healthfulness that was above and beyond anything I’d expected.

While I was impressed by the infrastructure and ingredients, I went into my visit with questions about how it’s all funded, and if it could be replicated in the U.S. Madame Jean-Grange, who along with Monsieur Doubourj is responsible for the school budget, explained that the cost of one meal for one student -- including ingredients, staff, etc. -- is roughly 7 Euros, or $9.50 U.S. The amount that families pay is calculated by the school administration, with all families paying the same amount -- at this time, about $3 Euros. Assistance for families that cannot afford the 3 Euro share is provided by the state after being calculated on an individual basis.

This is quite a bit more than the current funding and payment levels in our schools. And as much as I would like to see a system similar to that of France developed in the U.S., I also understand the budget constraints our schools already face.

What does this mean to those of us in the U.S.? Our students certainly deserve better than they currently get, and our local producers deserve the opportunity to play a role in feeding our kids at school. School lunch reform for healthier, higher quality school meals can be a part of the overall push to create student-centered reforms and more powerful educational opportunities.

My visit to France showed me the potential for engaging local producers and providing great school lunches. I’m confident that we can do the same in this country.

Andy Cook acquired his love of food and cooking while growing up in a family that understood the importance of good food. Outside of politics (where he currently works in communications for the Minnesota House Republicans), Andy enjoys reading, writing, road biking, and -- of course -- local, organic and sustainable food. You can follow him on Twitter at @amcook87.