New recipes

French Mayor Cuts Free School Lunches for Poor Children


New mayor sparks controversy after cutting free lunches

Wikimedia/USDA

A French mayor has sparked controversy by cutting free school lunches for his town's poorest children.

A newly elected mayor in southern France is already sparking controversy for his decision to save money by cutting free lunches for his town’s poorest school children.

According to The Local, Joris Hébrard is one of the 11 new mayors from France’s far-right National Front party who was elected in March. He is the new mayor of Pontet, in southern France. Pontet is €50 million in debt, which Hébrard decided to try to deal with by cutting school lunches for the town’s poorest children, even though the free lunch program only costs Pontet €30,000 per year, or approximately .05 percent of the town’s annual budget.

Hébrard’s chief of staff, Xavier Magnin, says the plan is to make many tiny spending cuts and hope that in the end they will add up to €50 million.

Cutting the school lunch program is particularly contentious considering that one of Hébrard’s first actions upon taking office was to give himself a €1,000 monthly pay raise over his predecessor. According to The Local, the previous mayor received €2,000 euros a month. Hébrard will receive approximately €3,000.

Magnin denies that there’s any controversy at all, saying the media is manufacturing the criticism.

“[Local residents] aren’t talking to us about the mayor’s salary,” he said to The Local. “They say ‘Bravo Mr. Mayor. We’re fed up that it’s always the same ones who take advantage’”

The school lunches normally cost students €3.15, or $4.31. The poor students who were previously getting their lunches for free will now be required to pay €1.57, or $2.15 per meal.

“Zero euros, it’s not expensive for a meal,” Magin said. “€1.50, it’s not too expensive either in the school cafeteria.”


Opinion: Free school lunches can help poorer kids learn

Recently, I got a low-balance alert from my daughter’s school lunch account. I thought nothing of it when I clicked the link to add money and give her access to a hot and nutritious meal, including that the account required a minimum $20 payment.

And while I thought nothing of it, many children and their families don’t have that luxury. Some may not have a complete lunch, or any lunch.

Atlanta Public Schools recently stepped up to make a difference. This year, students who attend a district-run or charter school that uses the district’s food service are eligible for no-cost meals. There are 77 Atlanta schools providing free meals to all students.

That means most Atlanta students can eat for free. In 2013, Clayton County became the first metro Atlanta district to offer no-cost meals to all students.

Federal reimbursements are provided for the meals. Supporters say the aid cuts paperwork, lessens the stigma on poor students, and ensures no child goes hungry.

Systems nationwide have grappled with the issue. A Pennsylvania district drew national attention when it warned parents behind on lunch bills that their children could end up in foster care. When a CEO, who had grown up relying on free lunches, offered to cover the cost, the district astonishingly rejected the offer. Ashamed, the district later apologized and accepted the $22,476.

All children deserve to have barriers removed in life.

Metro Atlanta schools offering free lunch to all should be commended. It’s true, children can’t learn if they can’t eat. It’s something that seems so simple, yet it means so much.


EXCLUSIVE: City public school kids may get free lunch in proposed budget

The City Council's proposed budget to be unveiled Wednesday will push for two big priorities: free lunch for all public school kids and 1,000 new cops.

The Council is asking for $24 million to provide lunches regardless of how much money kids' families make.

They're also seeking $94 million to boost the police force to more than 36,400 cops, among other changes proposed to Mayor de Blasio's budget.

Backers of the universal lunch program say the proposal would end the stigma that some poor kids feel when they line up for free lunch.

"Too many children in our city go hungry each day," said Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. "Universal school lunch is an investment in our children and will ensure all students are able to eat a healthy, nutritious meal."

About 75% of the city's 1.1 million students qualify for free lunch — leaving roughly 350,000 kids whose parents either make too much to qualify or failed to fill out the necessary paperwork.

Advocates say some kids are too embarrassed to line up in the designated free lunch line, or suffer because their parents don't bother to fill out the application or are undocumented and fear submitting any official paperwork.

Families of four with an annual income below $30,615 are entitled to free lunch, while those whose family income is below $43,568 get reduced-price lunch.

Mayor de Blasio's preliminary budget, presented in February, didn't include a universal free lunch program, nor did it propose hiring more cops.


American School Lunches Have Always Been a Problem

From baked potatoes to Obama's vegetable concoctions, will we ever please picky kids?

Much depends upon the simple school lunch.

Parents, nutritionists, government officials, farm lobbyists, and lunch ladies have debated the ideal menu for over a century, but they’ve yet to find a meal that can stand up to the real test: consumption. Michelle Obama has recently succeeded in forcing schools to serve more fruits and vegetables and banning sugary drinks in school cafeterias, but even that backfired. As any #thanksmichelleobama search shows, those lunches look disgusting.

According to food historian Abigail Carroll, the midday meal has been — and continues to be — cooked up by a host of factors, including poverty, immigration, social politics, inconsistent nutritional guidelines, and the consistently picky adolescent palate.

In the middle of the 19th century, Carroll says, the midday meal — the biggest of the day — was called dinner. Kids would usually go home to eat or, if home was too far, bring leftovers from breakfast: the beginnings of the modern packed lunch. Cold biscuits with cheese, jam, or tomatoes were common. Some meals were less colorful. “Kids brought potatoes,” Carroll says. “They would put them in the stove to cook during the morning.”

Lunch essentially grew out of what was then considered snack food — meals you could eat without heating, preparation, or utensils. “Pie was very much a lunch food. Or bread and cheese,” says Carroll. “That’s what Lunchables is. A glorified version of cheese and crackers.”

In the late 19th century, cookbooks started recommending that parents should pack their kids different school lunches. The 1893 cookbook Science in the Kitchen pointed out the inadequacy of what children were being served:

Many parents didn’t know any better. Some didn’t have the means to do any better. The lowly sandwich was calorie-dense, convenient and, importantly, palatable. “There was a lot of emphasis on sweetness. So, jam sandwiches,” says Carroll. “And making sure they have enough ‘nutrition,’ which didn’t mean vegetables. It meant energy. Calories.”

While kids spent their lunchtime pennies on pushcart meals of pickles and candy, industrialization and factory life gave rise to the time-saving, cost-efficient cafeteria. Schools soon followed suit, with charity-subsidized menus modeled after British school lunch programs, which also tried to pack in as many calories as possible with hot, super-dense meals, like stews, soups, and pies. Vegetables would occasionally show up in stews, but they were rarely served fresh, says Carroll. “I mean, most Americans weren’t very interested in salads anyways.”

By the Depression era, the government had a hand in menu planning. If the World War I draft taught America anything, it was that kids were underfed and vitamin deficient. Food prices were rising too much for privately funded charities to continue supplying kids with meals, so federal authorities got involved. Besides, says Carroll, the malnourishment crisis presented the perfect opportunity for the government to push their pro-Americanization agenda. “American” cuisine — chicken croquettes, salmon loafs, and scalloped dishes, according to historian Harvey Levenstein — became school lunch staples, exposing immigrant kids to flavors the government hoped they’d eventually accept as mainstream and bring home to their parents. “They were trying to get people to eat healthier,” says Carroll. “And part of getting people to eat ‘healthier’ was getting immigrants to not eat, you know, garlic.”

Surplus vegetables were canned by the government during World War II and the practice stuck around afterward, with canned goods making their way to school cafeterias in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and in 1946 the National School Lunch Act bound the government to keeping school kids nourished. Recipe books outlining what to do with the preserved vegetables were issued to schools. One booklet describes recipes for “baked bean cheese ‘burgers’” and “baked beans on meat layer.”

American classics like hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza were standard lunch fare by the 1960s. Not surprisingly, the first wave of obesity concerns wasn’t far behind. “While the standard lunch ‘provides a valuable source of nourishment for some children,’” a 1977 article in the Chicago Tribune noted, “it may lead to obesity in others…the GAO, an auditing arm of Congress, said in [their] report.”

The Reagan-era budget cuts to the school lunch program necessitated a bit of redefining to stay within the existing nutritional guidelines, to the outrage of parents who refused to accept that ketchup and pickle relish counted as vegetables.

Kids had more to choose from in the coming decades — deli counters and salad bars were more widely available in the ‘90s — but the obesity epidemic had already begun to take hold. Meanwhile, the wider availability of conveniently prepackaged meals, like the now-ubiquitous, nutritionless Lunchables, made it easier for parents to “feed’ their kids.

With the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, Michelle Obama’s efforts to address childhood obesity became law, allowing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to mandate nutritional guidelines for all food sold in public high schools.

The low-salt, low-calorie, and vegetable-heavy meals are, admittedly, healthier. But what good is a perfectly nutritionally balanced meal when kids just end up throwing out the parts they don’t like?

Unlike their 19th-century predecessors, most kids these days aren’t desperate for calories. Not desperate enough, at least, to overlook FLOTUS’ unidentifiable vegetable amalgams for hunger’s sake. While calorie intake drove school menus of the past, today’s school lunches need to be nutritious — and appetizing. And that’s the crucial part, the part that America’s school lunch campaigns have never attempted to address: joy.


In New York, There’s No Alternative to a Free School Lunch

Carmen Farina, chancellor of New York City Department of Education, at a press conference in New York, Sept. 16.

Good news! There is such thing as a free lunch and everyone is entitled. At least, that is, if you’re a kid in the New York City public school system. Last week Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariñaannounced that the new “Free School Lunch for All” program will provide daily meals at no charge to the city’s 1.1 million students.

In 2016-17, according to the city Department of Education, 75% of students were eligible for free lunch. Who are the other 25%? Kids from families with incomes above the old eligibility threshold—sometimes far above it. But according to Ms. Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio, well-off youngsters need a free lunch in order to keep poor kids from becoming social outcasts.

“This is about equity,” Ms. Fariña said at a press conference last week. “We’re erasing all the terrible history of the school food program—not just in New York City, but nationally—that has divided children by income. . . . This is a new day.” Rep. Yvette Clarke, a Brooklyn Democrat, added that it was time to “eliminate the stigmatization of young women and men who receive a free lunch”—the ones who previously made up three-quarters of the population.

While the city vowed the program won’t affect its own bottom line—state and federal funds will cover the costs—taxpayers will pick up the check. “Free School Lunch for All” could in fact represent an entirely new approach to inequity. Maybe middle-class families should receive food stamps so that poor families don’t feel stigmatized. Perhaps we should send the 1% to eat at soup kitchens, so people in desperate straits won’t feel bad about their situations. Or maybe we should offer public housing to the rich, so no one who is forced to use it will get self-conscious. The left says it wants a safety net, but if everyone falls into it then the safety net is properly called socialism.

New York’s universal free-lunch boondoggle is only the latest example of the federal government’s misguided efforts to feed schoolkids over the years. Advocates of free lunch (and free breakfast) argue that children are at the same time “food insecure” and fighting an obesity epidemic.


It's not a new or radical idea. In school districts that have taken advantage of a limited federal program providing universal free lunch, the number of children participating rose by 13%. Boston, Houston, Dallas, Chicago and Rochester adopted universal free lunch in their schools last September, with the most dramatic increase in high schools where the stigma is the strongest.

With universal free meals, schools win because some will no longer have to collect and verify applications annually and identify eligible students daily as they gather for lunch. Parents win because they know, whatever their daily struggles may be, their children have a meal waiting at school. No one has to endure the humiliation of declaring or proving low-income status — or wearing the label at school every day.

Most of all, students win because they can attend to their schoolwork without uncertainty or scrimping. Or hunger.

De Blasio's preliminary budget proposal in February did not include universal free lunch. He should seize upon the Council's proposal and turn it into a citywide reality. It's hard to think of a better investment in our future.

Hines-Johnson is chief operating officer of Food Bank For New York City.


Yes, there is such a thing as a 'free lunch' in New York City

New York city will offer free lunches to every student this year, regardless of need or ability to pay. Officials say that because some parents don't fill out the paperwork necessary for eligible students to receive the benefit, they decided to make lunch free for all.

"Students need healthy meals to stay focused in school, and it is a major step forward that every New York City student will have access to free breakfast and lunch every day," Fariña said in a statement. "Free School Lunch for All will provide financial relief to families and ensure all students are receiving nutritious meals so that they can succeed in the classroom and beyond."

"We know that students cannot learn or thrive in school if they are hungry all day," said Mayor Bill de Blasio. "Free school lunch will not only ensure that every kid in New York City has the fuel they need to succeed but also further our goal of providing an excellent and equitable education for all students."

About three-quarters of the city's 1.1 million public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch under federal guidelines. But many eligible kids haven't received the free meals, often because parents neglect to fill out the required paperwork.

Advocates for child nutrition have long urged the city to ensure universal access by making lunch free for everyone.

Several other U.S. school districts including Boston and Detroit already offer free lunch for all.

School officials are correct. Numerous studies have shown a direct correlation between full stomachs and academic achievement.

But it would be far cheaper to identify those students who are eligible for the benefit under the current federal school lunch program and get the parent or parents to fill out the paperwork than give wealthy and upper-middle-class kids the same free lunch that is given to poor students. The number of kids who fall through the cracks because their parents are unaware of what they have to do or are incapable of filling out a few forms has to be relatively small. Why burden the taxpayer by subsidizing rich kids' lunch when that money could be used to actually educate children?

Also, any mention of "nutritious meals" brings to mind the spectacular failure of Michelle Obama's nutrition mandates for school lunches. The organization representing cafeteria workers put it plainly:

Studies show that public school students aren't eating what cafeterias are serving, turning many operations into money-losers. While the school districts can opt out, doing so results in federal subsidy cuts for those programs.

"Overly prescriptive regulations have resulted in unintended consequences, including reduced student lunch participation, higher costs and food waste. Federal nutrition standards should be modified to help school menu planners manage these challenges and prepare nutritious meals that appeal to diverse student tastes," a new policy paper from the association said.

Some schools reported 50% of food being thrown out. Free lunch for those who need it is fine. But what good is it if the kids don't eat it?

This is a classic big-government solution to a problem that demands a more circumspect policy. But what fun is it if you can't spend other people's money on free stuff?

New York city will offer free lunches to every student this year, regardless of need or ability to pay. Officials say that because some parents don't fill out the paperwork necessary for eligible students to receive the benefit, they decided to make lunch free for all.

"Students need healthy meals to stay focused in school, and it is a major step forward that every New York City student will have access to free breakfast and lunch every day," Fariña said in a statement. "Free School Lunch for All will provide financial relief to families and ensure all students are receiving nutritious meals so that they can succeed in the classroom and beyond."

"We know that students cannot learn or thrive in school if they are hungry all day," said Mayor Bill de Blasio. "Free school lunch will not only ensure that every kid in New York City has the fuel they need to succeed but also further our goal of providing an excellent and equitable education for all students."

About three-quarters of the city's 1.1 million public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch under federal guidelines. But many eligible kids haven't received the free meals, often because parents neglect to fill out the required paperwork.

Advocates for child nutrition have long urged the city to ensure universal access by making lunch free for everyone.

Several other U.S. school districts including Boston and Detroit already offer free lunch for all.

School officials are correct. Numerous studies have shown a direct correlation between full stomachs and academic achievement.

But it would be far cheaper to identify those students who are eligible for the benefit under the current federal school lunch program and get the parent or parents to fill out the paperwork than give wealthy and upper-middle-class kids the same free lunch that is given to poor students. The number of kids who fall through the cracks because their parents are unaware of what they have to do or are incapable of filling out a few forms has to be relatively small. Why burden the taxpayer by subsidizing rich kids' lunch when that money could be used to actually educate children?

Also, any mention of "nutritious meals" brings to mind the spectacular failure of Michelle Obama's nutrition mandates for school lunches. The organization representing cafeteria workers put it plainly:

Studies show that public school students aren't eating what cafeterias are serving, turning many operations into money-losers. While the school districts can opt out, doing so results in federal subsidy cuts for those programs.

"Overly prescriptive regulations have resulted in unintended consequences, including reduced student lunch participation, higher costs and food waste. Federal nutrition standards should be modified to help school menu planners manage these challenges and prepare nutritious meals that appeal to diverse student tastes," a new policy paper from the association said.

Some schools reported 50% of food being thrown out. Free lunch for those who need it is fine. But what good is it if the kids don't eat it?

This is a classic big-government solution to a problem that demands a more circumspect policy. But what fun is it if you can't spend other people's money on free stuff?


Healthy School Lunch: America's Obsession With School Meals

With the passage of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010 and new school lunch requirements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2011, America’s school menus are healthier than ever – even if kids aren’t always happy about it.

School lunch was at the forefront of news and media in 2012, as students complained about being served new foods they say lack flavor. The attempt to serve healthier meals in U.S. schools is aimed at combating obesity, with more fruits and vegetables served and a daily cap on calories. It has also meant smaller servings, prompting students in Wisconsin to boycott school lunches, and leading kids in Kansas to make a music video suggesting that they aren’t getting enough food at school.

Despite disdain from kids, efforts to improve nutrition in schools seem to be helping, especially in states suffering from high child obesity rates like Mississippi.

A recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that in school-based efforts, including more physical education time and nutritional standards for snacks sold in vending machines, have led to a 13 percent decline in child obesity in Mississippi over the last six years.

Mississippi has the highest child obesity rate in the nation, a distinction that prompted child care centers to join the fight, even as they struggle to navigate a complicated government system.

In 2007, California set new nutritional standards for school snacks, and two years later the state eliminated sugar-sweetened beverages in high schools. The number of children who are obese has since leveled off at 38 percent, and dropped in Los Angeles. In San Francisco, some schools have outsourced their food production to companies that use chefs and local suppliers to offer healthier options and combat obesity.

In December, the USDA responded to complaints from students and schools, and announced it would tweak the food guidelines by eliminating daily and weekly limits on meats and grains. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote in a letter to Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) that the flexibility will grant schools “additional weekly menu planning options to help ensure that children receive a wholesome, nutritious meal every day of the week.”

More than 30 percent of adults and 17 percent of children in the United States are overweight or obese, a statistic that the Pentagon has referred to as a national security issue.


Good Intentions and Political Wrangling Led to School Lunch as We Know It

A student picks out fruit and vegetables to go with her lunch at North Side Elementary School in Chapel Hill.

Mary Spell worked as a baker in two different Durham middle schools in the nineties. At the time, Durham Public Schools had a mainly scratch-made philosophy in its cafeteria.

Spell would arrive at seven-thirty every morning and, with her baking partner, craft hot yeast rolls, pizza dough, cookies, and cobblers to feed the children. Although there was a district-wide menu each week, the recipes were up to the individual schools, she tells me as we sit on her porch. She shows me a bundle of yellowing, handwritten recipes that she's kept from that time. The amounts of ingredients and servings, though not unexpected, are still jarring her French bread recipe begins with seven and a half pounds of flour doughnuts call for fourteen.

When Spell started baking for Lowe's Grove Middle School, most food was made on-site and with fresh ingredients. But by the time she retired from Neal Middle School, the policy had changed: most foods came in premade, frozen packages ready to be reheated. The disappointment that resulted from this change hastened her departure from school lunchrooms.

Being in the food business has always been tricky for schools. It's expensive. In the 2005–2006 school year (the last available statistics for a full year), the average cost to produce a school lunch was $2.91. But the average full price for lunch for high schoolers is around $2.60, and the governmental reimbursement for a free lunch was only $2.50. There are binders full of regulations, with the index alone running to well over three thousand words. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, just one law, spans eighty-four pages.

As in most everything else, poor kids bear the brunt of the extreme politicization that surrounds education in general, and school meals specifically.

Although education was essential among the upper classes in the United States, free, compulsory education for all proved a slow process. In 1852, Massachusetts was the first state to mandate public schools, with Mississippi the forty-eighth and final state, in 1918. Similarly, school lunches were first implemented in large cities in the Northeast. The earliest major city to institute a lunch program was Boston, in 1894. The motives were twofoldto teach children nutrition, and to "Americanize" immigrant children with a strictly American menu.

In the more agrarian, smaller towns of the South, most children went home for lunch. But many areas simply lacked the funds for building kitchens and dining rooms in the cramped, often one-room schoolhouses.

Up until the Great Depression, the school lunch programs were small, voluntary, and led by teachers or mothers' clubs. Due to the economic crisis, these programs were inundated with hungry children. Local governments sought support from the state, which then turned to federal assistance.

During World War II, men were being rejected from the military draft because of health problems brought on by poor childhood nutrition. This led President Harry Truman to sign the National School Lunch Act in 1946. The purpose was to set nationwide standards and partially fund meals for public school students.

Regardless of the law's underlying motivation, by 1947, seven million children had been fed. Still, almost from the start, the National School Lunch Program became an economic and ethical hot potato. Politicians have long viewed the program as an unnecessary giveaway to the poor. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan promised to cut the budget and downsize the government. To this end, one of his administration's first acts was to cut 25 percent from the program, insisting there was little actual need but, instead, much waste and malfeasance. The battle still rages with Donald Trump's education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who is pushing to slash programs, and Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, who defended cuts by arguing that there's no evidence that feeding hungry kids raises test scores.

Until significant changes in the sixties, the program was less about feeding children and more of a financial windfall to the bottom lines of commercial farms and food-processing companies. Very few poor children received assistance to purchase the meals. After President Lyndon Johnson signed the Child Nutrition Act in 1966, funding was made available to feed poorer kids still, almost no basic nutritional standards were mandated. The legislation also funded a USDA pilot program to test a comparable breakfast program.

Three years in, the breakfasts had still not reached the communities that needed them the most. In response, the Black Panther Party organized the Free Breakfast for School Children Program in 1969. Funded by neighborhood businesses and charities, it originated in Oakland, California, and operated out of St. Augustine's Church. By the end of the program's first year, 20,000 children were being fed in nineteen U.S. cities. It also inspired the Young Lords Party, a Puerto Rican/Hispanic movement, to start its own program.

Calling the Black Panthers a hate group, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared the breakfasts were an attempt to brainwash "highly impressionable youths." His stated mission was to destroy the good will toward the party that the breakfasts engendered among "uninformed whites and moderate blacks." Because of him, the last of the programs ended by the mid-seventies.

Rising costs and funding cuts in the seventies led many districts to contract with private companies to run the programs. As a result, fast food became the only available option in many cafeterias. The nation was poised to enter the Reagan era of "ketchup as a vegetable."

In 2004, the USDA urged schools to use the meals not only to fight malnutrition but also to target the obesity epidemic. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was passed, mandating nutritional minimums and sodium, fat, and caloric maximums.

What effect has this governmental and societal do-si-do had on current school lunches, and the children who eat them?

After one hundred and twenty five years of good intentions, innovations, duplicity, heartbreak, and occasional victories, it's clear that outsourcing is a public school system's best bet. Most area private schools don't even offer meals for students and require them to bring lunch from home. Raleigh's Chesterbrook Academy, for example, offers a catered lunch program where each day of the week places like Boston Market and Jersey Mike's provide a lunch for $5.

These varied, complicated stressors combine for school systems to make contractors a viable choice. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools partners with Chartwells Food Service. They serve three districts: Winston-Salem, Burke County, and CHCCS. Last year 1,247,495 meals were served to Chapel Hill-Carrboro students.

Waiting for me in the Northside Elementary School's clean, bright cafeteria was Liz Cartano, Chartwells director of dining Jordan Keyser, district chef (he's culinary-school trained), and registered dietician Lynne Privatte. They were proud of what they had put together.

Very quickly I realize I need to jettison my preconceived notions. If it's not scratch-made on-site, foods like pizza dough are made off-site and brought in to be finished. The only canned foods are kidney and black beans. A vegetarian meal is available each day. The vegetarian meal for today is hummus with pita points and raw veggies. The hummus is brought in but flavored with herbs and lemon in the cafeteria. There is the aforementioned pizza with fresh sauce and cheese (part-skim) added in the cafeteria before baking.

The other entrée is teriyaki chicken, with "fried" brown rice and stir-fried veggies. The veggies were lightly cooked broccoli, cauliflower, and bok choy. Unlike the limp gray canned vegetables from my school days in the seventies, this is bright, colorful, and crunchy. Dessert is mainly fresh fruit milk is low fat, and juice comes in small portions.

Activities are set up to promote healthy eating, like farmers markets during school hours that equip kids with "dollars" to make purchases. Then the culinary staff works with the students to cook that food.

It's tricky to get everything right. But in defiance of all those monkey wrenches in their machinery, schools are still giving it a sincere effort every day.


Michael Moore's New Movie Nails School Lunch in France -- On The Menu: Lamb, Endive, Lentils and Leeks

In his hilarious, up-tempo and deeply subversive new movie, Where To Invade Next, schlumpy, flag-bedecked Michael Moore invades foreign countries “populated by Caucasians whose names he can mostly pronounce” in hopes of finding real-life solutions to America’s most intractable problems.

As the invasion proceeds and the dominoes fall, Moore “steals” the best ideas from each country he conquers.

They include tuition-free college (Slovenia and Germany) seven weeks of paid vacation and guaranteed maternity leave (Italy) universal health care and an effective antidrug program based on decriminalization (Portugal).

From Norway, Moore swipes the idea of basing prisons on rehabilitation rather than revenge.

In Iceland, he steals the defining features of the country’s school system, which is rated the best in the world. They include equitable funding, little or no homework, short school days, and plenty of time for discovery and play.

Moore’s takeaways are pretty mouthwatering to a country struggling with downward mobility and loss of social cohesion, violence, mass incarceration, drug abuse, soaring college costs and underfunded schools that serve gloppy, toxic lunches.

Cassoulet - Lunchroom Fare in French Schools Photo Cuilheim

Nowhere is the contrast between the way things are done in Europe and the way they’re done in the U.S. more pointed than when Moore invades a French school lunchroom and sits down with kids who are eating a meal that would be classified as gourmet in the U.S.

It starts with Coquilles Saint-Jacques (sea scallops), continues with a hot entrée, veggies and salad, and ends – this being France – with a cheese course.

The kids are sweet and unknowing. Moore offers them a Coke he has smuggled into the cafeteria, but it's a hard sell. When he shows them pictures of mystery-meat school lunches in the U.S. they react with a mixture of doe-eyed horror and pity.

In the past, Moore’s critics have accused him of oversimplification. But the facts on the ground bear him out, as I learn while exploring the French school lunch program.

To get a close-up look, I seek out Bordeaux’s Deputy Mayor Emmanuelle Cuny in June during a press trip to cover Vinexpo, the tony wine trade show in capital of Aquitaine.

Madame Cuny, Bordeaux’s school nutrition czar, advances the crazy notion that kids should have time to eat and that school lunch should be pleasurable. It sounds totally quaint and impossibly idealistic. But she means it. As the conversation continues, I start to feel like I'm in a parallel universe.

Remembering the baloney sandwiches, chocolate milk and Fritos of my youth, I venture a question, pretty sure I know the answer in advance: Are kids allowed to buy snacks or bring their own lunch to school?

"Kids should have time to eat and school lunch should be pleasurable."

Cuny’s smile masks a slight wince. “Our children are not allowed to bring sandwiches and chips to school.”

La junk-food doesn’t stand a chance in French schools. Soda is banned. Vending machines are forbidden in lower school, kids drink water with lunch and nobody asks, “Do you want to super-size that?”

Bordeaux's School Lunch Czar, Emmanuelle Cuny
Photo O. Panier des Touches

As the discussion proceeds, it becomes clear that we're in a sloppy joe-free zone here. Fair enough. This is France. But how far do the French really take their love of food? After all, we’re talking school lunchrooms, not Michelin-star restaurants.

Pretty far, says Cuny, 48, who oversees 21,000 meals a day, all prepared at SIVU, an immaculate central kitchen, which also serves senior centers. I meet staff in charge of day-to-day operations and am impressed by their devotion to the “cause of the table.”

We talk about ingredients. The bar is high and parents expect a lot, Cuny says. “Maybe that’s because food is so important in our country,” she adds.

It starts with bread. What I hear is skull-flattening. It would be unimaginable in the U.S.

“We serve fresh bread every day,” Cuny says as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.


10 Local Bakeries Supply Fresh Bread to Bordeaux Schools Every Day
Photo Boulangerie Madalozzo

We’re not talking flabby industrial-grade loaves. We’re talking classic French bread with structure and a real crust, the kind you’d imagine eating with pâté and a glass of Bordeaux.

We don’t get into the details, but I imagine the logistics must be the work of a master. The SIVU team has networked ten local bakeries to handle the task.

Together, they supply bread to every one of the nearly 100 schools in the city within a few hours after it comes out of the oven – every day, week in and week out, all during the school year.

40 percent of all the food served in Bordeaux schools is organic. Fried food and hamburger-based dishes are rare.

Cuny is justifiably proud that a full 40 percent of all the food served in Bordeaux schools is organic. Fried food and hamburger-based dishes are rare. Farm-to-table is in, and 70 percent of the vegetables come from the immediate region.

Local chefs build meals based on ingredients like organic chicken, controlled regional lamb that is traceable to the farm where it was raised, certified Atlantic salmon, seasonal vegetables, organic fruit and dairy from the region and traditional cheeses from various parts of France.

On the Menu in March: Chicken with Leeks and Cream, Vegetable Flan, Organic Fruit and Artisanal Cheese

What does Cuny’s team do with all these wonderful ingredients? To get a fix on what kids are actually eating, you have to drill down to the level of the individual school menu.

Take Thiers Elementary School in the city’s Bastide neighborhood, a random pick from among Bordeaux’s 98 neighborhood schools. Look at what’s on tap for the next three weeks, and prepare to be dazzled.

Starting March 1, students at Thiers will be dining on dishes like Emincé de poulet (organic chicken from Périgord with herbes de Provence), carrot salad with garlic and parsley in vinaigrette, pork sauté with leeks in a pepper cream sauce, and organic apples for the fruit course.

Poor kids -- they’ll also be suffering through risotto with vegetables, crêpes au fromage, couscous, vegetable flan, lamb tajine, cabbage salad in a mustard vinaigrette and the legendary blanquette de volaille, made with leeks, vegetables and cream. Non-pork alternatives are also available and vegetarian options are becoming more and more popular.

Cœur Cendré for the Cheese Course
Photo www.treasuresofeuropetours.com

Dairy and cheese selections at Thiers elementary school during March include fairly conventional fromage blanc, organic yoghurt and your basic Rondelé.

But there are also stand-out cheeses. This month they include the ash-veined Cœur cendré from Livradois, and Comté AOP, a designated-origin cheese from the Franche-Comté region. Really?

Taking the French Fries Out of France

What’s not on the menu says as much about the difference between school lunch in France and the U.S. as what is on the menu.

Take French fries. The kids at Thiers elementary school will only get them once in the next three weeks – probably a disappointment, but policies like these are why young people in France weigh less than kids in the U.S., where some schools serve French fries every day, diabetes is soaring and childhood obesity is pandemic.

And the one day breaded fish is on the Thiers school menu in the next three weeks it will be a sustainably-sourced filet, certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, not a preformed minced fish patty, which is common in the U.S.

"If you're from the land of Velveeta and fish sticks, school lunches in Bordeaux look pretty exceptional."

Menus at other schools in Bordeaux this month are just as diverse. That’s probably why the city’s school nutrition program has an 80-percent satisfaction rating among parents and why Bordeaux scored near the top in an independent national survey of school lunch programs three years ago.

High School Cafeteria Chef
Photo Departement Oise

"It's time to eat like a local. Sign me up," I think to myself. If you're from the land of Velveeta and fish sticks, school lunches in Bordeaux look pretty exceptional. We’re in the epicenter of French wine country where eating is an art form and food and drink are valued above all else. Maybe that's why the school meals here rock.

Beyond Bordeaux

Five-and-a-half hours north of Bordeaux, in Mormant, Thierry Grasset, the chef at the local high school, Collège Nicolas Fouquet, echoes the same sentiments you hear in Bordeaux and everywhere else.

Grasset prefers the name "school restaurant" to cafeteria, which speaks volumes. He plans meals with balance and variety in mind. Menus include hake with a shrimp, mussels and white wine sauce, cauliflower, Merguez sausage and lentils, ratatouille, veal and onions with sautéed vegetables, crudités and the occasional pastry. He only serves French fries once every four weeks.

Paris: Poor Schools Don't Equal Bad Food

The more I learn, the more I realize how deeply school lunch is anchored in the social contract. There is such fundamental consensus about its importance that the French find a way to fund it -- even in metro regions where municipal budgets are stretched and a host of social problems compete for money.

This is amply evident in Paris where kids have access to breakfast and good-quality lunches at schools across the city, even in areas with high unemployment, large immigrant populations and intergroup tensions.

135,000 meals are served every day. And whether it’s a rich neighborhood or a poor neighborhood, “meals are a special time of discovery and pleasure,” insists city hall.

The 19th Arrondissement, on the northeast periphery of Paris, is the city’s most impoverished and racially divided neighborhood, so it might be safe to assume that schools there are lowest on the food chain.

Endive: Ever Seen it in a School Cafeteria in the U.S.? Photo francebleu.fr

But kids in the 19th district have a place at the table, and the elementary schools there rocked the nation’s most recent school nutrition survey, scoring 19.1 points out of a possible 20. Mysteriously, the 7th Arrondissement, which is the city’s richest, only scored 15.7 out of 20.

The school lunch program in the 19th Arrondissement faces its own challenges and it’s far from perfect -- for example it doesn’t offer as many organic choices as schools in other districts.

But despite this, when you drill down to the individual menu level it’s pretty clear that elementary school kids in the 19th district are eating food that’s superior to, and more varied than, fare served to students in many schools in the U.S.

What School Kids in the Poorest Neighborhood of Paris Are Eating

Take the month of March. While dystopian lunchrooms across the U.S. are serving up chicken nuggets, pizza, hot dogs, fish sticks, mystery-meat chili and fruit cocktail this month as they do throughout the entire school year, kids in Paris’s 19th district will be enjoying bistro-worthy fare that is inventive and balanced.

This month, schools in the 19th will be serving veal with hunter’s sauce, salmon, soy steak with basil and tomatoes, sustainably-sourced pollock with lemon sauce, organic cauliflower and organic carrots, lentils, spinach gratin, veal au jus, organic couscous, and lamb with curry sauce.

There will only be two ground beef dishes on the menu all month and the bread will be made from organic wheat.

And don’t forget, mes amis: This is going down in the poorest neighborhood of Paris.

It doesn’t stop there. Late in the month, school chefs are planning a special theme day spotlighting the cuisine of northern France.

School Menu: Leek Tart with Morilles Cheese
Photo Caisse des ecoles 19 Paris

The menu will star a classic Flemish leek tart made with an artisanal cheese, called Maroilles. It also includes potato salad, chicory with croutons and a waffle dessert with chocolate and Chantilly cream.

The salad side of the equation is no less astonishing. Can you imagine your kid’s school serving Batavia leaf lettuce salad with Tomme sheep's milk cheese and olives? What about salade de fruits frais? How about escarole with Emmental? Or endive with Mimolette cheese, croûtons and vinaigrette à l’orange?

Can you imagine your kid's school serving Batavia leaf lettuce salad with Tomme sheep's milk cheese and olives?

These are some of the salad choices that are on tap for lunchrooms in the 19th Arrondissement this month. For the cheese course it will be Comté, Coeur de nonette, organic Camembert and Cantal.

If Paris’s poorest schools can serve food like this, why can’t we?

Checking in a delivery of fresh vegetables at a Paris school kitchen
Photo Camille Bosque

While Paris lunchrooms are certainly making a strong showing, school lunch programs in other parts of France are pushing the envelope even further -- probably because they have better funding and smaller populations to serve. Many are offering more variety and a higher percentage of organic ingredients.

Local sourcing is the wave of the future. With the support of county governments, schools in many outlying regions are beginning to connect with local farmers through Manger local (Eat local) initiatives that are sourcing as much as possible from suppliers in the immediate area.

In some regions this is creating markets where there were none, leading to new opportunities for small-scale farms. In addition, advocates think students will value local agriculture and feel more connected when they know the food they’re eating is from the local farmers.

County nutritionists in Alpes de Haute-Provence underscored the local connection:

“Did you know that the apples and pears you eat come from Volonne, that the lettuce comes from Manosque, some of the yoghurt from Selonnet, the organic spelt from Vachères, the organic vegetables from La Brillanne, the organic sunflower oil from Pierrerue, pasta from Montfuron, lentils from La Bréole and that the meat comes from farms in the Alpes de Haute-Provence?”

Terroir in the Lunchroom

Diversity, local sourcing and organics are growing to be hallmarks of the French school meals program. Emphasis on regional cuisine is another one.

When schools can source the right ingredients, they’re not shy about offering terroir-driven artisanal dishes as part of the lunchroom repertoire, even including earthy iconic dishes like foie gras, duck, confit, kidneys and other specialties.

Native cuisine like this is more common in regional centers and smaller towns in the hinterlands, where traditional ingredients are available and local dishes are prized.

Some kids have all the luck. Trélissac schools serve dishes like brandade de morue, sardines and anchaud de porc, a swarthy pork confit.

Lapin à la moutarde - Rabbit in mustard sauce
Photo Wikimedia

Caen includes cassoulet on its menus and students in Besançon get fricassée de lapin à la moutarde (rabbit fricassee with mustard sauce). Isère schools serve tripe Caen style and Montignac puts rillettes du Mans, an intense pork pâté, on the menu.

Fare like this is not served every day and chefs know to balance it with less caloric offerings. It’s obviously not for the faint of heart, but schools are using it to expand the palette of choices and expose kids to regional culinary heritage.

Meals for the Many

The French continue to tweak their school lunch program. Legislators have mandated cuts in salt, sugar, ketchup and mayonnaise. They're calling for fewer sauces, fewer fried foods and even more vegetables.

But the bar is already pretty high. And as Bordeaux, Mormant, Paris’s 19th district and lunchrooms across the country are demonstrating every day, it’s clear by any measure that French schools are providing top-class meals to the children in their care.

"French égalité is alive and well in the lunchroom."

If good-quality school lunches were only available in some regions of France but not others -- or if they were only accessible to the country’s one-percenters and not the middle class and poor -- it would be easy to dismiss the program as a culinary training ground for the entitled few.

But in no way is France's school lunch program a bastion of privilege and the country's schools are not in the business of training snobs. French égalité is alive and well in the lunchroom. The school lunch program is not only high quality, it’s democratic and it benefits everybody.

With this type of investment in good taste, it’s no wonder nearly everyone in France knows what really good food is and delights in it. And, as Michael Moore shows us, it’s an idea worth stealing.

Slideshow: School Lunch as if Taste Mattered -- What French Kids Are Eating


Watch the video: French mayor scraps pork free school meals (November 2021).