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School lunch abroad

(article, Deborah Madison)

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Back to school means back to school lunch. Here’s a meal that has been rightfully singled out as being highly problematic. After all, it’s basically fast food — fatty, highly processed, and very caloric. It's the recommended diet for those who want to become obese and possibly develop diabetes. Truly, school lunch is one of our country’s greatest shames, especially given that we know it is harmful and that we also know what kids need to be well-nourished. 

This spring I joined the International Exchange Forum on Children, Obesity, Food Choice, and the Environment in France’s Loire Valley, where 16 of us met first with each other, then with our French counterparts working in diet and health, and finally in the lunchrooms of two schools. The school lunches we ate were meals I’d be proud to serve.

At one school, students were served a choice of salads — mâche with smoked duck and fava beans, or mâche with smoked salmon and asparagus — followed by guinea fowl with roasted potatoes and carrots and steamed broccoli. For dessert, there was a choice of ripe, red-throughout strawberries or clafoutis. A pungent washed-rind cheese was offered, along with French bread and water. Yes, the kids took and ate the cheese.

[%image kids width=450 float=left caption="French schoolchildren eat in brightly colored lunchrooms. Lunch hour includes exercise and lasts for two hours." credit="Photo courtesy Deborah Madison"] 

Our second meal was a little simpler, but then, the kids were younger, too. Children served themselves a butter lettuce salad from a bowl set on the table. The main dish was mashed potatoes with a sauce of ground beef (delicious!). Bread and water again were offered as well as the pungent cheese, and a choice of fresh strawberries or a little pastry.

In addition to the goodness of the food, there were other good things about these school lunches. First of all, they weren’t rushed. About two hours are given for lunch, a portion of which is used for very loud and active exercise. Second, they were civilized. Food was served on heated plates; real silverware and glasses — not plastic — were used; and the lunchrooms were pretty and comfortable for the kids. 

Instead of teachers blowing whistles and yelling at kids to stop (teachers ate in their own rooms), there was a cadre of women whom I called “the lunch moms,” who, as far as I could tell, were there simply to be helpful. (I’m not sure if they were actually mothers of children at the school.)

These people picked up fallen jackets and sweaters, helped smaller children with their food, set the table for the four-year-olds, answered questions, and would no doubt wipe away tears. One child had brought his lunch, but a school mom transferred it to a plate, like the other kids had. 

I watched another “mom” encourage two girls, who had taken more bread than they could eat, to try to finish it so that they wouldn’t be wasting food. They couldn’t finish it, but instead of being scolded, they were gently urged to take less the next time. 

[%image lunch width=400 float=right caption="In France, schoolchildren are served guinea fowl instead of chicken nuggets." credit="Photo courtesy Deborah Madison"] 

We poked through the kitchens, pantries, and walk-ins, and saw that everything was amazingly clean; the different walk-ins dedicated to dairy, meat, and fresh fruits and vegetables were all set at the appropriate temperatures. Although European Union rules say that purchases can’t favor locale, we did see quite a few locally grown foods. And school cooks don’t have to order the cheapest foods, so quality clearly comes first. 

Who gets to have these meals? All the kids, regardless of their parents’ incomes. They cost about three times as much as our school lunches do, a cost that is shared among the school and local government bodies, such as the mayor’s office. As for those vending machines that we have such a hard time getting rid of, they were banned in France three years ago. Banned.

What impressed me most of all about the French school lunch was not just the deliciousness of the food, but that everything about it — the brightly decorated lunchrooms, the gorgeous kitchens, the lunch moms, the chefs — sent such a deep message of caring. To my ears it fairly screamed, “We care about and love our children. They are us, after all, and we want them to eat well and be nourished.” 

Unfortunately, that is about the last message American school lunch sends to our children. Instead, we’re saying, “We have to feed you something; it’s gotta be cheap, and we don’t really care about it or you.” This doesn’t mean that those who put the meals out feel that way, but they are mostly given nothing to work with, be it pots and pans or the knowledge about how to do things, like ripen fruit so that it tastes good when it’s offered.

But there are good people chipping away at our school-lunch problem to offer a better solution and a more caring message. There are schools that enjoy a farmers’-market salad bar, and schools that have big school gardens. There are movements in New Mexico, Oregon, and other states to put local food on the table, especially fruits and vegetables. There are programs, like Cooking with Kids in Santa Fe, in which cooking classes are tied into the class curriculum; in turn, the learned dishes are added to the lunch menu to build more diversity. And there is the amazing Ann Cooper, who is gradually making lunch in all the Berkeley, California, schools better in every way. Yes, there are areas where hope prevails. 

If you know some examples of success in the uphill climb to a better American school lunch, let me know here in the comments section. I hope — and bet — we’ll see hundreds of great things happening in the year ahead!

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. She lives in New Mexico.

Also on Culinate: Deborah reminds us to savor the taste of local foods, and Roz Cummins interviews her.

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