Thursday, May 20, 2010

School Food in Lyons, France: Where Taste and Culture Matter

Guest Post
By Nicholas Morin

Directed here from an article in the New York Times, I've been interested in reading this blog and I thought I could share something with you in return: I live in Lyons, France, and I have a 6-year-old daughter. She eats at school every day, and I thought it might be interesting to share with you what she eats at her school.

Obesity is rising in France: from about 6% of the population in 1990, to a little under 10% today. But that's still very low compared to more than 25% in the US. And Wikipedia tells me that "while French youth culture has gravitated toward fast food and American eating habits (with an attendant rise in obesity), the French in general have remained committed to preserving certain elements of their food culture through such activities as including programs of 'taste acquisition' in their public schools".

Yes, my daughter has a "taste acquisition" class in school: it's part of the curriculum here to be taught about food, not just as something abstract (remember the "food pyramid"?), but official programs say children should be taught about different tastes. And they are also encouraged to talk about what they feel when they taste something. Children are taught that food is something cultural, something you experience: food as taste and culture.

This cultural bias towards food and it's importance shows in what children eat when they eat at school. Even though each school contracts independently with a catering company, selecting offers from the marketplace, schools have to abide by national guidelines in the contracting process. Those guidelines mandate certain things about food security or waste management, but they also mandate things about the diet itself.

For instance, the guidelines require that each menu should have at least one dairy product, three courses, etc. At the local level, parents get the menu for every school day about three months in advance. Here's what my daughter had last week:

Monday: Grated carrots with a light vinaigrette; roasted chicken wing with cauliflower in a "béchamel sauce", aka "white sauce"; blue cheese; a fruit.

Tuesday: Cold vegetable pie with vinaigrette; fish with a tomato sauce; pasta; cheese; a fruit.

Wednesday: No School

Thursday: Green salad; veal with olives and beans; a yogurt; a fruit.

Friday: potato salad; cheese omelet with spinach; fresh goat cheese; a yogurt.

That's it. Does anything about this sound wrong to an American ear? Besides a lot of cheese?

Choice: There is no choice. Children don't get to choose if they'd rather have cauliflower or fries. It's mandatory: cauliflower for all! If your kid hates it--well, she'll eat better tomorrow: it's spinach day!

But in truth, my daughter loves to eat there.


  1. I wish I went to that school.

  2. Everything I've been reading about school food in France simply highlights to me the important role that culture plays in the way that we eat. Unfortunately, I feel like school food in America will never change unless we, as a country, change our entire attitude about what it means to eat. I am so tired of hearing from NYC Schoolfood, for example, that a lunch item on their menu is healthy simply because it is low in fat. I don't consider overly processed, breaded mozzarella sticks a healthy lunch entree. And really, does anyone? Anyway, maybe we'll just have to move to France as well!

  3. Sounds wonderful to me...okay the veal, my kid would not eat the veal. The rest would be no problem.
    I like that there is no choice. Quality food.

  4. @Erin it's definitely cultural. For instance they have a game at school where kids taste stuff blindfolded, like mustard, chocolate, jam, salt, etc. and they have to say if it's sour, sugary, etc. and try to recognize what it is.

    And the definition of "healthy" is different: a lot of the meals in France can be pretty high on fat, but they'll be deemed "healthy" nonetheless. Why? Because here healthy more or less means "complete": there's got to be a bit of everything in the meal, meat or fish, vegetables, starch (pastas or rice), dairy products. And it has to have several courses.
    They don't talk about a healthy item in the menu, but about a healthy menu.

  5. okay, its a lot healthier than schools here in the UK, but the school has got a long long way to go in providing healthy sustainable food if they are serving veal. I'd be hard pushed to send my child to a school with that kind of ethic.

  6. Are there taste acquisition courses in primary schools across France, or are they specific to Lyon? I know it is a gastronomic capital and actually participated in a short exchange program there during my high school years. I am now a University student in the Baltimore/D.C. area studying Education and this issue of school food, as well as the way children are educated regarding nutrition and food is one near and dear to my heart/interests. I am looking to further study the approach they have in France, and to begin sharing some of the ideas they practice across cultures. I am wondering where I should look in France to study as I need a University affiliate. If you have any suggestions, that would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!