Several years ago on a shopping trip to the local supermarket, my youngest child Margaux asked me to buy beets. I wasn’t sure I heard correctly, as with many American children raised in France, her English was dotted with French vocabulary. “Betterave,” she said as she pointed to the dirt-laden beetroots freshly pulled out of the ground. After explaining to me that she loved the beet salad her school cafeteria served “en entrée” (as a first course), the journalist in me decided that a cafeteria serving fresh beet salad to first-graders was worth a look.
This brief supermarket incident led me down a two-year research project investigating French school lunches that began with this article shared by millions around the world, and culminated in a book, French School Lunch: Why Delicious and Nutritious Cafeteria Food is a National Priority in France. In my article, I described in detail how 3 to 11-year-old students from pre-school to fifth grade sit down for four-course lunches during the standard two-hour meal and recess break. More than half of these French school lunches are prepared in-house in a school kitchen or satellite kitchen for the school district.
The keen interest in this article, I suspect, came from the contrast of lunches here in France with those abroad. The difference is found in the variety of healthy foods on the French menu, but also in the environment in which children eat: sitting down at a table set with cutlery and dishes, several courses served, and of course, the long recess to burn off energy.
As of 2020, however, I’ve learned that France has raised the bar even higher and made school lunches even healthier, greener and more sustainable than they were before.
Organic and local foods
The French government has passed legislation that requires elementary school cafeterias to serve 50% of their foods from local and organic sources. Although this directive has been widely phased in throughout the country, it must be completed by all schools as of 2022. Today, more than 80% of elementary schools serve part of their foods from organic sources. Some schools in the country are almost completely 100% organic including the 2nd arrondissement of Paris and the Provençal town of Mouans-Sartoux. This legislation is hailed as a victory not only for the health of France’s children but also for France’s farmers and the country’s pledge to sustainability.
Vegetarian meals required
Aside from requiring local and organic foods, another major change the government put in place last November is one completely vegetarian meal served per week. While there has been much demand from parents all over the country to serve less meat and dairy during the school day, France’s recent Agricultural Bill also highlights the environmental impact of school lunches.
“…for healthy eating that is sustainable and accessible to all, school cafeterias must propose at least once a week a vegetarian meal.”
As with organic foods, many schools in France already had vegetarian meals in place. Bordeaux, Marseille, Strasbourg, Toulouse and other cities have been serving vegetarian meals for years, either as the main meal or an option to a non-vegetarian meal served. Paris’ 19th arrondissement proposes two vegetarian or vegan meals to students every week.
Limit food waste
As part of its environmental sustainability initiatives outlined in the Agricultural Bill, France is working aggressively to address food waste issues. Approximately 167 grams of food is wasted per person, per meal throughout the country’s public restaurants (which includes school cafeterias). This represents about one-third of each meal served.
The French government now requires school cafeterias to develop tools to measure the amount of waste and to publish a plan to combat it. In addition, schools will begin (or continue) to educate school-aged children about food waste. Other measures include the management and donation of unsold foods, and finding innovative and efficient solutions to avoid food waste with partners throughout the food chain.
Following France’s 2017 ban of plastic bags in supermarkets, by far the largest environmental change to sweep across the country in 2020, including school cafeterias (and the kitchens attached to the cafeterias), is the ban of single-use disposable plastics such as cutlery, plates, cups and straws. When children leave the school premises for a field trip and take a school-packed picnic lunch, they will be required to bring reusable water bottles instead of receiving a commercially purchased water bottle with their lunch as was the case before.
Although French school lunches appear to be arguably amongst the healthiest and most delicious in the world to those outside of France, the French themselves are highly critical of what is on offer today – perhaps one of the reasons the standard of school lunches will continue to improve. Parents, city councils, school associations, nutrition-related professionals and others continuously work to improve not only the actual food offerings at school cafeterias but to grow more school gardens and to expand the current standard curriculum to include more lessons on whole foods and nutrition, as well as sustainable development.
As the mother of three children in the French school system (one each in elementary, middle school and high school), it has been a relief to know that during their preschool and elementary years, my kids learned how to eat a large variety of healthy foods, some of which I don’t necessarily serve at home (beet salad for instance).
Their repertoire of food, as well as the ability to sit at a table and socialize while eating four-course lunches has been a major bonus of raising children in France.
Because of my research, I am acutely aware of the progress being made locally and nationally to provide high-quality foods to school-aged children. However, I am also aware, through the hundreds of emails and other feedback I’ve received from my articles on the topic, that what children are fed at school is of interest to people in all corners of the world. School lunches are not just about food and cafeterias. The topic touches upon wellbeing, health, social issues, education, farming and agriculture, the environment, politics, parenting and more. What our children eat at school should be of importance to everyone, regardless of where we live.