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French Week: On School Lunches

Day four of French Week!

Today's post will be another long one, but we only have a week, and there are very many good things left to say about France, so I hope you will bear with me.

Take a look at these two school lunch menus, both for the week of March 24-28, 2003. The menu on the left [full version] is from a school in the town of Montigny le Bretonneux, just southwest of Paris; the menu on the right [full version] comes from a school in Pittsford, New York.

For the American menu, children are allowed to choose three additional items from the following list: milk, chocolate milk, salad, 'hot vegetable', fresh fruit, canned fruit in syrup, crackers. They can also purchase a dessert.

French LunchAmerican Lunch
Iceberg lettuce with radishes and vinaigrette
Grilled fish with lemon
Stewed carrots
Emmental cheese
Apple tart
Zweigel's™ hot dog on a roll with tater tots
White cabbage salad [remoulade]
Sauted chicken with mustard
Shell pasta
coulommiers [soft cheese]
Apple compote
Tyson™ chicken fingers with rice and gravy
liver paté and a cornichon
peas and carrots
mimolette [Edam-like cheese]
Double cheeseburger with Fritos™ chips
Cucumber salad with herbs
Spiced sausage
Saint nectaire [cheese]
floating island [meringue served on custard]
Mozzarella stixs [sic] with tomato sauce and garlic pasta noodles
potato salad
filet of fish with creamed celery
sauteed lima beans
Stuffed crust cheese and pepperoni pizza

I chose these school menus at random from a large pool - you can run the searches yourself and see that they are representative. A Google query on restauration scolaire menu will get you a long list of French and Belgian school menus.

Note that not only do the French students eat more interesting meals than the American kids, but they get a different message from mealtime, too. You get the sense that a French school lunch is considered part of the child's education. Students learn that there are many kinds of foods and many kinds of main courses. They notice that meals have a structure, and consist of an appetizer, main dish, vegetable, cheese, and dessert. And most importantly, kids (who are not dumb) see that thought and care has gone into designing their school menu, and that what they eat at school is considered important by the school administrators.

Contrast this with the American school, where the kids are fed a monotonous diet of pizza, burgers, chicken parts and meat. The school this menu was taken from actually has weekly Domino's pizza day. Although children are ostensibly allowed to pick healthy foods as side dishes, anyone who's been through public school in the States knows that the 'fresh fruit' and 'garden salads' are unappetizing and unpalatable.

Finally, notice how hard it is to eat a healthy diet at the American school. You would be relegated to a ghetto of garden salads, 'soups of the day', and whatever nutritious innards you could pull out of the breaded main dish. The message American kids get is that healthy food is second-rate and tastes bad, that they should eat lots of meat, cheese and potatoes, and that eating fast food every day is a normal diet.

There is no suggestion (like in the French schools) that a palate is something that must be nurtured and formed over time. Instead, kids are taught to favor sweet, fatty, salty foods and treat eating as just another source of entertainment.

School administrators (along with many parents) will argue that they have no choice in what they can offer, because kids just won't eat healthy food. But that is Lord of the Flies logic. If you applied it in the classroom, you would be forced to teach English from comic books and math not at all. In fact, some schools do take this line of thinking it to its logical conclusion, and allow fast food franchises to take over their lunch programs. Many more set up vending machines that give kids unrestricted access to candy, soda, and snacks.

The dirty fact about American school lunches is that they are a dumping ground for surplus and substandard beef, chicken and dairy products. Many of these foods cannot be served fresh because they would be too dangerous to eat. This is especially true for ground meat, which is at times so contaminated with bacteria that it would not be legal to sell it in a supermarket.

A couple of hundred years ago, Louis Pasteur (a Frenchman, of course) discovered that you can kill bacteria in many foods by heating them to an elevated temperature for a certain period of time. Pasteur's discovery was revolutionary. Pasteurized foods (like milk, honey, cider or wine) could be stored longer without going off. And of course pasteurization can render dubious foods safe. But the legacy of Pasteur's invention, in this country, has been perverted. Instead of improving the quality of our food supply, we've used techniques like pasteurization and antibiotic prophylaxis to make it possible to create food on an industrial scale, artificially fighting back the disease and contamination that would otherwise make modern factory farming impossible.

The process shows no signs of slowing, either. The current push for irradiating meat (under the euphemism of 'cold pasteurization') is an attempt by the beef industry to make meat safer not by improving hygiene at the slaughterhouse, but by rendering contaminated meat harmless. Presumably, it doesn't matter whether meat in school lunches has been in contact with cowshit, as long as it is no longer infectious.

At the same time, we take great pains to ban certain natural foods like raw milk cheeses, on the dubious grounds that they could carry pathogens.

As a culture, we Americans tend to fixate on certain exotic dangers (unpasteurized cheese will kill our children!) while completely ignoring real and pervasive dangers (there's shit in our meat; our schools are feeding children swill). And we have a strangely Calvinist attitude to our food: healthy eating has to be dour, and unpleasant, an almost unattainable ideal. Sin surrounds us, and often we fall.

The French attitude seems to be much healthier. Food is one of life's many pleasures, there is an elaborate (of course) intellectual superstructure to its proper preparation and enjoyment, and French children are introduced to the intricacies of good eating from an early age. And as they grow to adulthood, they find themselves in a country where one is expected to eat well, and where there are many opportunities to do so.

I had this difference in sophistication vividly demonstrated some years ago, when I was a student in Paris. I had been hired to babysit a five-year-old boy twice a week, in the hopes of teaching him a little English. One evening, as I was preparing a snack, I held up a piece of cheese.

"Nicolas, in English this is called cheese. Can you say that?" "Cheeeese!" "Very good! Cheese. What would you call this in French?" "Reblochon."

Five years old, and he knew his cheeses by name. I checked him on every one in the fridge. He even knew the names of the ones that were unpasteurized.

So tonight we lift our glasses (of Orangina) to Nicolas, and to all the other miniature gourmets who will be eating lunch in a French school tomorrow.

Undocumented assertions in this post are all abundantly documented in Eric Schlosser's excellent Fast Food Nation. Hyperlinks in this post courtesy of our own resident food fascist, who has the mad Google skillz.

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