Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

School Lunch Lessons

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I teach a course on Food and Culture and learned a lot about attitudes towards food and eating. The best example is France.  There have been many articles about the  French and their love for their cuisine.  As Michael Pollan says in “Unhappy Meals”:

In the case of the French paradox, it may not be the dietary nutrients that keep the French healthy (lots of saturated fat and alcohol?!) so much as the dietary habits: small portions, no seconds or snacking, communal meals — and the serious pleasure taken in eating. (Worrying about diet can’t possibly be good for you.) Let culture be your guide, not science.

The French have had low obesity rates until McDonalds established its outlet on Paris’ Champs Elysees. The French have experienced a rise in their obesity rates and are not going to take this lightly.  They are way behind the U.S by about 20 years; however, their obesity rates jumped to 14.5% of the adult population in 2009 from an 8.5% rate in 1997.

“French schools on front line of obesity fight”, the headline says.  A project called “Morning Classes, Afternoon Sports” is being implemented in 124 middle schools and high schools in the country to help students with team-building skills.  This program is now to be used to fight the rising obesity problem.

In her book, “The Hundred Year Diet” by Susan Yager she says: “The French attitude toward food is very different.  She cites examples of French children being weighed at schools and letters sent home to parents to alert them about any weight-related issues. “ U.S. parents often resent this kind of intrusion.

A group of 16 chefs, educators, and nutritionists in 2007 visited France while at the International Exchange Forum on Children, Obesity, Food Choice and the Environment.  The purpose of the forum was to learn how the French feed their children and examine ways schools could create a pleasant eating environment to teach the children to associate food and health.

One of the visitors, Jean Saunders, school director for the Healthy Schools Campaign in Chicago wrote a daily blog about her observations of the French and their approach to healthy eating.

Some of her main observations:

  • The French emphasize lunch as a major part of the school day.
  • All French children participate in the school lunch program.
  • Most elementary schools devote nearly 1/1/2 hours to lunch and recess with lunch comprising about 30-40 minutes of this time frame.
  • They drink only water with meals.
  • School meals are prepared by trained chefs with mostly fresh ingredients (locally if possible)
  • They prepare real food from scratch.
  • They spend more money per child with costs shared by parents and local governments.

She provided a school menu that will exemplify how the French think about food.  It’s amazing!

  • Salad of butter lettuce with smoked duck
  • Tomato and fresh mozzarella salad
  • Smoked salmon with asparagus and crème fraiche
  • Roasted chicken with roasted root vegetables and roasted potatoes
  • Apples with sabyon
  • Fresh strawberries
  • Goat cheese
  • French bread
  • Water

This is a far cry from pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken tenders, nachos, grilled cheese, and popcorn chicken I recently found on a lunch menu for the month of March at a typical middle school in a U.S. city.  To be fair, some vegetables and beans were offered like corn, green beans, and carrots.

I think these menus tell the story.  More blogs will come later about the French and Italian approach to school menus as well as some of the improvements that have been suggested for our own school lunches in the U.S.A.


One thought on “School Lunch Lessons

  1. hello, i am a nutritionist who recently has been doing some work in some local elementary schools. to describe what i am seeing could turn stomachs. most schools where i am are now built without full kitchens. food is sent in from a central kitchen and warmed in individual plastic containers. breads turn hard quickly, veggies are pathetic, applesauce sits on the counter in a large industrial plastic bucket. i can go on and on. thanks for covering this.


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