Written by Jenn
“Monsieur, you send your son to school with a sandwich?!” an offended canteen staff spat disbelievingly from his cultured French collar. Judging my husband as ignorantly uncivilized with her incredulous expression, the atmosphere grew guillotine tense.
In France, school lunches are decapitatingly serious business.
Last September, our Canadian family of six began an educational immersion year in Southern France. My husband, Brian, was summoned to meet with the kindergarten teacher, principal, nurse, and canteen staff to discuss our youngest son’s severe peanut allergy. For safety precautions, a bagged lunch was deemed necessary. School policy instructs that meals brought in must be accompanied by a written menu and be properly dated.
“If I send my son to school with a sandwich my wife prepared that morning, must I still label the date?” Brian asked in clarification with his Anglophone French. Perhaps something was lost in translation, because his innocent question, somehow interpreted as absurd, was as if he insisted on serving our child Dr. Seuss’ green eggs and ham. We didn’t understand why this was such a big deal.
For most Canadians, school lunches bring up memories of crinkled brown bag sandwiches. Ham and cheese with mayo slapped between two pieces of bread holds the norm; and for the older generation, before nut-free schools shelled out, the delightful peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Put in a juice box and fruit like an apple, banana, or orange to counter the snack treat of a bag of chips or chocolate bar, and you’re set. For the really health conscious parent, perhaps organic vegetables and multigrain bread, along with 100% pure fruit juice would do the trick.
In France, however, the customary two-hour noon break dictates a right to conviviality. Many children go home, and the ones who stay must eat the 4-5 course hot meal provided at the school canteen. Homemade lunches are not allowed. Unfortunately, we unsuspecting Canadians didn’t know that, and sent our kids with a Ziploc (I could not find any brown paper bags anywhere!) full of sandwich goodies on the first day of class.
Normally, sandwiches are eaten during picnics or school field trips. Many students prefer to eat their lunch at home because the food served at the canteen is not as good. Sadly, that is not the case for my children. They prefer eating the school’s gourmet hot meals with unlimited servings of bread. At our house, they’d receive our staple soup and sandwich… Tim Horton’s style.
We knew then that we were in for a steep learning curve when it came to digging deeper into understanding the French culture. Originally, we lived in France to acquire the language (well okay, the nice weather and beaches attracted us too), and now we found ourselves on top of the spaghetti all covered with cheese education on the French mentality of food and health.
In the past 25 years, the obesity rate in children has tripled. According to the Canadian Childhood Obesity Foundation, 1 in 4 Canadian children between the ages of 2-17 are currently obese or overweight. As a result, schools nationwide increased their classroom physical activity and switched to healthier hot lunch options.
Nevertheless, the problem continues to grow. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development contrasts Canada’s statistics with France, where childhood obesity has remained relatively low over the past twenty years at less than 10 %. Could France’s deeply ingrained cultural savoir faire on the art of food preparation and consumption answer the predicament of Canada’s obesity woes?
Canteen menus post a month in advance, easily accessible by parents and staff through the internet. A weekly restaurant menu tucked behind a glass encased message board greet parents as they enter the school. Children are encouraged to take a little of everything offered and taste their food. Our children feasted on green salad for their entrée, fish with cream sauce and herbs as their main course, zucchinis and potatoes for their vegetable dish, camembert cheese to fulfil their dairy requirements, and milk chocolate mousse for dessert. With a menu like that, no wonder my Canadian kids prefer to eat at school instead of the boring sandwiches thrown together at home.
France’s Agriculture and Food Minister Bruno Le Marie, told Journal du Dimanche earlier this October that he believes his country “should be an example to the world in the quality of its food, starting with its children.” A national decree passed this October to improve the canteens’ nutritional quality of dishes served to the 6 million primary students who eat there every day. It specifies that 4 or 5 courses should be offered, with more milk products, salads and vegetables, and more fruit for dessert. Chips, salt, ketchup, and fried foods have been drastically limited, with a balance served between meat and fish during the week. Our children have benefited from this recent change, breathlessly bragging the delicious feast with a “Mom, guess what we ate today!” This appealingly healthy variety would make a Canadian mom like me blush with envy as I spoon for another helping of chicken nuggets with ketchup. Frankly, I wish I could eat there too.
Mirreille Guiliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat, shares that the quintessential French practice in balance and pleasure with food begins at an early age. This approach to healthy living as equilibrium becomes second nature when children reach adulthood. On the same note, Clotaire Rapaille compares the American and French approach to nourishment in his book The Culture Code. He writes that Americans invented fast food, generally eating everything served on their plates, whereas the French take pride in their slow food and significantly smaller portions. Americans end a meal by saying, “I’m full.” While the French finish by saying, “That was delicious.”
Our sandwich faux-pas opened our eyes to see food as wholesome nourishment and conviviality. We’re preparing meals together, focusing on balanced nutrition, smaller portions, drastically reduced consumption of fast foods, and exposing our palates to different dishes. When we return to Canada, we’re not only taking home a Mediterranean tan and a second language, but a French education on healthy living.