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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.

Comments

Thanks for sharing this information!

Looks like a delicious and healthy lunch.

When you say you "understand the budget constraints our schools already face", what do you mean? The only reason there are any constraints on US education budgets is because the tax dollars that SHOULD be being used to fund them are being spent on illegal wars. Perhaps if you were to mention that you would give readers a much better view of the situation.

+1 for Joe's comment.

If America were truly great, all of our children would be cared for. Our public schools would rival the best private schools. Our children would compete with best and brightest. A meritocracy. But no.

They start wars of choice and spend our money buying influence for corporate monstrocities around the world. They bail out bankers and poison our kids with garbage food and an inferior education.

As it is now, America's children are expendable just like it's work force and it's seniors and its Veterans.

There is no American culture. It's been outsourced to everywhere else. The ones left behind here are just waiting to die off.

@Joe: you are so spot on!!

a bas les dejeuners des ecoles americaines!! As a former teacher in a public high school I fully support the French notion of making sure children eat well. I've seen my share of school lunches and thank God for my Italian grandmother who made sure I had a tasty lunch she prepared for me each day. Glad to see they don't permit fast food runs @ lunch as allowed in the U.S.

I don't think we're debating that the schools have limited money to work with, are we? The reason they do, however (thanks Joe, Anon, and Camus), is that we've prioritized our spending -- the allocation of our tax dollars -- in other ways. It's CRITICAL that we understand the choices our country makes when it comes to how our taxes are allocated (like wars instead of schools), and that we make sure our representatives are supporting the things that we value. When they don't, we need to hold them accountable.

The French have a long tradition of preparing and enjoying food that is different from the American tradition. In general, the French believe that eating is an experience to be savoured and enjoyed. Fresh ingredients are important. They also believe that teaching children to enjoy good, fresh food is as important as the academic education they receive. They start young, in pre-school, with these kinds of fresh, healful meals. That is not the case in the US. Here, we SAY that we want kids to eat well and then feed them pizza and tater tots. And, here in the U.S. we don't have the same food tradition. I teach at an American high school, and frankly, the kids I know wouldn't eat the school lunch shown here. That fish and all those fresh veggies would end up in the trash. It's very difficult to feed children on the American diet of fish sticks, hamburgers and fries at home and then expect them to eat well at school. There needs to be a better, healthier food tradition here in the US overall before any significant change happens in the school. We have to value good nutrition first. I think at this point we are just paying lip-service to it.

Very interesting to see how Americans ( I'd rather say some Americans ) sees but they mustn't be lured too much as we also are in France more and more getting into the habit of eating unhealthy food ; the fault to a more and more hectic life for women and men alike , more and more profit making , disturbing time tables ( I still know a lot of French who resent losing their lunch break ...) it's in our culture but with Europe or who knows what ... things are changing ...Our governments are aware of what should be done for the kids but sometimes it's just words ...not to mention , advertizing and marketting which push the youth to consume fast , cheap and trendy food. My daughter aged 16 likes the lentil salad which makes me very happy...It's just a way of considering life and our presence on Earth, cooking is a gift, a pleasure and what links the peole of any country, isn't it ...So I do hope we 'll not plunge into the mad maelstrom of making more and more money ... to buy and throw away at once ...and because of some fallacious pretext fall up on a food that would be ready -made and tasteless...
Long life to gardens and their wise gardeners...

I spend 4-6 weeks re year in France and have grown to really love so many aspects of their culture. I go through a huge and depressing culture shock when I return here. We will never have these lunches here because a) so many of our kids eat junk from a very young age and, like the teacher commented, most of the food would go into the trash. Also, the anti-tax sentiment in this country has led to so many budget cuts in our society, with our schools being seriously affected. It is so sad how crude and rude we have become. While no place is perfect, we have certainly gone on the skids.

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