The first school meeting I ever went to was about food. We had been living in France for a year and my daughter was in the nursery school section of the local primary school. “We are here to organise a collective morning snack for the children, it will mean they eat more healthily” said Madame Joly, the teacher. “Now, can we have some ideas please?”
“Cantal cheese,” said one parent.
“Saucisson,” said another.
“Baguette,” I said, partly because it was one of the few French words I knew.
Instead of every parent giving their child an individual pre-packed snack for the break, we now take it turns to prepare the goûter collectif. This week is my turn and I have to bring 25 plain yogurts and 15 apples to school which all the pupils will share.
This contrasts with England where teachers don’t seem to care what children show up with to eat. And in France the attention to food continues throughout the whole schooling system. Lunch menus in France in both primary and secondary schools will always include a starter, a main course of meat or fish with vegetables, a dairy product and a pudding. In some schools they have a self-service system with a range of colours for food: one colour for vegetables, another one for milk products, another for meat and so on. Pupils need to take one dish of each colour, to make sure they have a balanced diet. Although they don’t have this in my children’s school, they do at least encourage them to eat up and try everything that is on their plate.
The budgets and menus for school dinners are decided at local and regional levels. On average the budget per school dinner per child is €1.55, four times the one in the UK. Contributions from parents vary according to their income but are on average €2.50 per child.
All over the country school menus have to be approved by local nutritionists. “Balanced meals are an integral part of education,” says Roger Gauthrot, mayor of Heillecourt in Lorraine. “To achieve a balanced diet, a menu committee determines what food goes into the meals. This committee includes parents, teachers, elected councillors and culinary staff.”
When they lived in Leicestershire Sarah and Andrew Powderly used to send their son Thomas, aged 10, to school with his own sandwiches. “We were horrified at the things they were feeding the children,” says Sarah. “I felt I could give him a more balanced meal myself.” They moved to the Gers two years ago and Thomas has been eating well at the local primary school. “They are given three courses, but no choice, so they have to eat what’s on offer,” says Sarah. “And if they don’t even try to eat their main course there is no pudding.”
The kinds of starters Thomas now eats include asparagus quiche, tuna and egg salad, soup or savoury filled pancakes. Main courses are usually duck, chicken, pork or fish accompanied by rice, potatoes or pasta and at least one vegetable. The puddings are yogurt or fromage blanc with fruit or sugar.
“What I love here is that the kids grow up learning to try everything,” says Sarah. “Thomas would never have touched a lentil at home and now he asks if we can have lentils and sausages for dinner.” At Thomas’s school the food is sourced locally by the dinner lady. “Some of the vegetables even come from her garden,” says Sarah. “But we are talking a very little school.”
Speak to a French men of a certain generation who have been on an English exchange and they recoil in horror at the memory of school dinners. “I’ll never forget it,” says Jacques Kuhnlé, a retired English professor. “My first school dinner was at Kingsdown high school near Swindon. There was something shapeless on my plate and the first-year girl sitting across the table said “Why do you look so glum, chum?” I was speechless.”
These eating habits learnt at school carry on into later life. You don’t often see workers in France stopping for a sandwich. They will bring out a full picnic including wine and cheese course for their midday meal. The whole country stops at 12 so the French can enjoy the sacred hour of the déjeuner. Where we are in the south it usually runs into two sacred hours and then a siesta. My children all eat things most toddlers would baulk at, including oysters, anchovies and olives. This adventurous approach to eating is reinforced by their education.