Does a healthy school lunch have to include meat? The French government says ‘yes’, and bans vegetarianism in schools.

French school lunches are widely acknowledged as being affordable, tasty, and nutritionally complete. Stringent regulations by the French government cover everything from how often pastries should be served (only once a week), to how much calcium and protein should be in each meal. Given that 6 million French children eat hot school lunches every day (vending machines are banned in French schools, and children can not bring meals from home), this is in many ways a good thing.

But has the French government now gone too far? Last month, a law was passed which obliges school cafeterias (cantines, in French) feeding more than 80 children to adhere to minimum nutritional requirements regarding how much protein, iron, calcium and fresh fruit schoolchildren should be given. There’s more: over a one month period (a 20-meal cycle), a minimum of four meals must include “quality meat” and four “quality fish”; on the other days, egg, cheese or “abats” (offal) should be the main dish. Vegetable sources of protein–like lentils and beans–are not on the approved list. This has vegetarians (and even many non-vegetarian parents) up in arms: because menus typically offer only one choice, anyone who doesn’t want to eat meat will be excluded (or have to eat a nutritionally deficient meal).

The French are, it’s true, big meat eaters. Rabbit and veal are regular items on French school lunch menus. But some French medical experts argue that the French diet is too heavy in meat, given that over-consumption of meat is a major cause of heart disease and other chronic illnesses. Others argue for vegetarianism on the grounds of environmental sustainability, since meat production is both water and land-intensive, and produces environmentally negative effects like greenhouse gas emissions and (if improperly handled) pollution from agricultural runoff. And the fact that meat products in French schools are usually not halal means that an increasing proportion of French muslims (up to 10 % of the French population) are opting out of school lunches altogether.

Less than 2% of French people are vegetarian, and only a very small minority is openly protesting the French law. So it’s quite likely that it will remain in place for the time being. The effect will be to mandate meat-eating (and a high level of meat consumption) for French schoolchildren. Personally, I think this is going a step too far, and I’ve signed the petition against the new law: petition.icdv.info/en.

What do you think: should any government be allowed to legislate what children eat at lunch?

12 thoughts on “Does a healthy school lunch have to include meat? The French government says ‘yes’, and bans vegetarianism in schools.

  1. That is so interesting, Roberta. I’d love to know where you got those stats. As a first response, that sounds accurate: French people eat really well, and eat quite a bit at meals. So I wouldn’t be surprised if calorie intakes are similar. However, the French eat very differently (no snacking) which may also influence metabolism, weight, etc. One thing to note, though, is that self-reported calorie intakes are apparently often unreliable…people don’t remember what they ate (or would prefer not to tell the truth)!

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  2. I have to agree with Kate that French cities are laid out so that people are forced to do alot more walking than in North America. In France, cars are often not allowed (ie. in historic city centres), or parking is extremely difficult and inconvenient. It often makes more sense to simply walk or ride a bike. People end up walking more in their daily life compared to North Americans whose cities are extremely car friendly (infact, they are often bike and pedestrian averse!). I think this does play a key role in the big difference in obesity rates.
    I recently came across some statistics compiled by the FAO. According to it, France and the US are on par for daily caloric intake: >3600kcal/person/day (interestingly, Canada is actually below both, with only 3400-3600Kcal). So there does not seem to be huge differences in actual calories consumed, which would lead me to think that physical activity is playing a big role. However, the quality of food being consumed is undoubtably far better in France which would contribute to better overall health.

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  3. Great points. I completely agree with your sister about ‘French Women Don’t Get Fat'; it’s not all about culture. The point about people walking everywhere (lugging heavy grocery bags!) is a good one. Even driving a standard versus automatic transmission car uses more calories (I’m not making this up–scientists have actually studied this!).

    So, France is not perfect and some French women do obviously get fat. However, obesity rates are a lot lower in France than any other wealthy country. And I’m not sure eating disorders are higher. My sense is that many people have a healthy, balanced lifestyle (which includes healthy eating), and that this stems from both culture and the way life is organized. So I still think we can learn things from the French example.

    On the wine drinking…no surprise that she encouraged it, as the author is a top executive in a champagne company! :)

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  4. I’ll have to see if i can get my sister to post here sometimes.

    She had several thoughts about the “French Women Don’t Get Fat” book. Her first thought was that just as in America, there were some women that had an intuitive sense about keeping a healthy weight, and there were others who struggled. No matter what sort of diet you eat, if you don’t have a sense of portion control..you can still gain weight. The American chain Weight Watchers has a presence in France. Eating disorders are also present in France. Her thought was that the book oversimplified these issues, and just made it about culture.

    Her second thought was regarding many French cities being laid out in a certain way so that people had to walk more and were less reliant on cars. Since everyone was getting more activity through walking, this helped with weight control. I think this point is a major one. We used to bike or walk everywhere…kids in this generation either aren’t expected to walk, or their parents have chosen housing in a place that makes it really impractical to walk.

    She also had some thoughts about wine drinking as it is encouraged in the book, that go beyond the scope of your blog.

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  5. I totally agree with you Kate, on several points:
    -not allowing food choice is really problematic in a multicultural society
    -there is definitely more diversity to the French experience than what is portrayed in North American media (where we often romanticize the country, and overlook daily reality of actually living there)
    -I agree the French government’s policy is wrong in this case

    And I would LOVE to hear your sister’s thoughts on “French Women Don’t Get Fat”…

    But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! The French do a lot of things well. The question for me is: how could we have a system where we enable children and families to choose healthy lunches, without the strict enforcement used in the French case? Is this even possible? It’s the central issue that Jamie Oliver came up against in his Food Revolution campaign. Would love to hear your thoughts!

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  6. Aren’t Muslims, vegetarians, or any other groups that may consider certain foods taboo also French people? Where do they fit in in deciding how French culture should be shaped, or imposed on anyone person?

    While I respect the right of the French to pass on a certain culture, it doesn’t sound like it works all that well if they are completely ignoring the preferences of certain groups of French people, without letting them have an alternative.

    My sister has lived in Saint-Etienne and Paris. She has told me that there is more diversity to the French experience than what is often portrayed in the media….she took major issue with the book “French Women Don’t Get Fat”, for instance. I find the treatment of vegetarians very interesting, and the response of the French government questionable.

    While the US might not be perfect, I’m glad that my vegetarian friend from India has the option to feed her children as she likes, and not having big brother telling her what to do. I might not want to eat as she and her family does every day, but I wouldn’t dream of taking her option away of packing a lunch for her children, or telling her that her kids must eat the school lunch.

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  7. I agree Kate. But the French wouldn’t agree, because they really believe that you should learn to eat different things from classical French cuisine — it’s part of their culture (sort of like football for Americans, if that makes any sense!). The “abats” is something that is normal for people there, so it isn’t out of the ordinary.
    But I know what you mean–it’s not something that I would have been comfortable eating before living in France (much less asking my kids to do it)!!

    And I like the idea of letting my kids choose. The problem is that in a society where we let kids (and parents) choose, most of the choices don’t end up being healthy. So what’s the answer?

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  8. Agreed Kristine! France actually has a very centralized agro-industrial system (but not factory farms on the same scale as the US). And they’re very defensive about supporting farmers (and subsidizing them). It’s one of the reasons that there is much less organic production (which has no subsidies), and It’s something they’re going to have to confront at some point.

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  9. I don’t agree with not having the option to bring a lunch from home. When I learned that French kids could not bring a lunch from home, I instantly wondered about vegetarians, and persons for whatever reason did not eat pork.

    I can’t say I’d be a big fan of mandating kids to eat “abats”/offal as I what I understand them to be.

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  10. Definitely think there should be a vegetarian option and definitely think that the French government should be supporting their local family farmers in sourcing humanely raised and slaughtered meats for their otherwise admirable lunch program.

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