What we can learn from France about how to improve our school lunches

Welcome to the third installment in #BehindThePlate. To read the other articles, click here or here.

Sweetgreen, a restaurant chain that promotes healthy eating, released mock-up images of school lunches around the world. The lunches in some countries actually look tasty and healthy. Some pork with veggies, black beans and rice, and salad and bread in Brazil. Local fish on arugula and pasta in Italy. Pea soup in Finland with a carrot salad and a desert pancake with some fresh bread. Steak with cheese, green beans and apples in France. Shrimp in Spain with some whole grain bread. Then, we arrive at the United States. Processed popcorn chicken with canned fruit in syrup. Oh, and ketchup, which at times the US government has called a vegetable. Compare that to France, where there are restrictions on how many times a month ketchup can be served in schools.

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One thing becomes obvious when looking at this slideshow. That the US does not value healthy, real good food as much as other countries. Not enough money is allocated into buying healthy, quality school lunches as in other countries. The US could easily manage to spend a couple extra dollars for every child per lunch. We are trying to give children school lunches for about $2, which is typically near the amount schools charge for a non-reduced lunch per child in the US. However, in countries such as Italy, school lunches are free of charge altogether. Yet, they still manage to find money to give children quality school lunches. People will say it is because food plays a much more important role in those cultures. Which is true. But increasingly, Americans are asking themselves, “Is this really good for me?” Or, “Actually, Should I cook at home more often?” If we didn’t care about what kind of food we ate, why would there be the Organic movement? Why would there be supermarkets like Whole Foods? Cities around the country have been enacting taxes on sugary drinks and soda. Yet if it has been medically proven that they have negative effects on our health, why are we still serving them in some schools? While we focus on what foods are sold in the supermarket, we fail to realize where it all comes from. Food habits develop in school. If we had proper courses on healthy eating, and if we actually offered healthy foods, setting a good example, children might actually pick up good food habits. We could even teach gardening, and schools could grow their own food. It can work, as it has been proven in some countries that are not as rich and connected as us. Why can’t it work here? This is the United States of America.


In France, food is cooked in schools. Good manners and habits are encouraged. In the United States, much of school food is made in China, then frozen and shipped over to schools, where it is then reheated. Soda and chips are served. In the US, almost one in five school-age children are obese. In France, that figure is less than half of that. Obviously, the food we serve in schools has an enormous impact on how healthy we are, and that can continue into adulthood. It’s time to actually start caring more. There have been improvements, I will not deny that, especially under Former First Lady Michelle Obama, who championed healthy eating. In schools, posters with pictures of vegetable superheroes can be found in cafeterias, encouraging children to pick more vegetables. It is also worth noting that in many US school cafeterias, lunch is served à la carte, and students can pick items for lunch. The problem with this is, many students simply won’t pick any fruits or vegetables, instead opting for chips or soda.


In France, however, you will find no such posters or à la carte bufés. Children eat at tables of four, with real silverware. Meal plans are prepared almost two months in advance and sent to a dietician to ensure everything’s perfectly healthy. Foods are prepared from scratch right there on premises, and occasionally from restaurants or bakeries nearby. Lunch periods are required to be at least 30 minutes by the Ministry of Education. (In the United States, kids typically get about 8 minutes to eat, according to activists. This can further lead to bad food habits.) And although the Sweetgreen photos were mock-ups, meaning that they were created based on guidelines from each country’s government, the photos Rebeca Plantier took on her blog mindbodygreen look awfully close, though.


Image credit of mindbodygreen

But how do the French get kids to eat everything they put in front of them? In the United States, when some school districts began forcing kids to get veggies, it was speculated that most of it just got thrown out. Well, the French often serve vegetables first thing, so hungry kids will eat them, along the way getting used to veggies. Water is the only drink served in cafeterias. Already, at a young age, pediatricians give parents lists of foods they should be giving to their kids to try. Taste training is actually part of their curriculum and kids are tested on it. It goes to show, when you grow up with something, when you get used to something at a very young age, you can keep that habit for the rest of your life. Trying new things isn’t really stressed as much in the American culture, which explains why kids are so obsessed with pizza and chicken nuggets, and why many will only eat a few foods. Our culture and what we find important in schools is drastically different, in this case, for the worse.


As you will know, American school lunches don’t exactly look like French ones. But they easily could in ten years time, if we put a little more effort into it. If school lunch was a top priority for education departments and boards, the next generation could be healthier. Plus, when kids eat good, nutritious food, they can do better in class. If kids get enough exercise (France has multiple recess periods during the day), it can also help them focus. Investing in school lunch can bring a variety of benefits, health and academics-wise. We should restructure school cafeterias, bring real plates, not paper of foam ones (also helping with the environment.) Kids can do it. Kids can cook. Kids can chew with their mouth closed. Kids can make good food choices, we just need to give them the surroundings to do so. No more candy, chips, and soda in schools! More veggies! One step at a time, we can fight for a good food education. Perhaps one day our school lunches will be just as good as the ones in France…..One day, maybe 1/3 of American children won’t be obese or overweight….maybe, just maybe.

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