I love my older daughter’s school here in Vancouver. She loves it too. It’s a fantastic place. The teachers are great, the kids are full of energy and enthusiasm, and we’re good friends with quite a few of the parents. I make these comments as a prelude for this blog post, because I do have something negative to say about the school (it’s possibly the only criticism I have):
Lunch lasts 10 minutes.
In the schedule we receive at the start of each year, it’s written down in black and white: Lunch: 12:00 to 12:10. This includes unpacking the lunch, eating, and packing up. Kids eat at their desks (we don’t have a cafeteria or a school kitchen), then head out to play for 50 minutes before classes start in the afternoon.
Now, I don’t know about you, but 10 minutes seems pretty short to me. As far as I can tell, some teachers observe this timing strictly: “Time’s up, out you go!” Others let the kids take a bit more time. But, still, it’s short. My daughter often comes home without having finished her lunch. Except soup. I sometimes despair of the fact she seems to have a mostly liquid diet at lunch, but it’s one nutritious thing she can eat quickly. Even then, she is often hungry when she gets out of school at 3 pm, and so has a big after-school snack (which is, in some ways and on some days, almost like a late lunch).
As I work full-time, there is not a lot I could do about this. Plus, even the kids with stay-at-home moms don’t seem to go home for lunch very often. They want to stay and play with their friends. So kids gobble their lunch (or spend time trading treats), and head outside.
I’m not the only mother who complains about this. I hear it all around me. But it seems that a quick lunch is part of our culture. My French husband was shocked when he learned about how the school treated lunchtime here. (Our daughter was in kindergarten in France (where we were living at the time), and started school in Vancouver in Grade 1, just after we had moved back from France.) And then it dawned on him. “So that’s why everyone at work gobbles a cold sandwich in 5 minutes, sitting alone at their desk. They trained them to do it at school!” Prior to this, he had never understood why he was the only one at work who wanted to spend a good half-hour (minimum) eating and chatting with his colleagues–the norm in France.
In fact, this is how the French teach their children to eat. By national Ministry of Education regulation, school lunch — the sit down, eating part of it — must last a minimum of 30 minutes. That’s understandable, given that lunch is the main meal of the day (40% of caloric intake), and especially if you consider what is served: a four-course lunch with starter, entree and side, cheese, and then dessert. (For more information on the amazing menus in French schools, see my French Kids School Lunch Project). The children then play for an hour (to digest properly, bien sur), while teachers have their 1.5 hour break (also with a freshly cooked three or four course hot lunch). School finishes later as a result–the French school day is typically 8 hours, e.g. from 9 to 5 pm, even in primary school.
The French believe that food education is one of the most important tasks for parents and teachers. That’s why French kids get (fun, tasty, and informative) lessons about food in the classroom and in the cafeteria. Interestingly, many of these lessons are about how as well as as what we should eat.
Right now, I feel like my daughter is learning that (i) it’s OK to gobble your food; (ii) meals are an interruption in the day, and what you eat is not important; (iii) it’s OK to choose ‘easy to eat’ or convenience foods.
In contrast, French kids learn that (i) it is important to eat slowly (partly because the ‘fullness feeling’ (or satiety signals), where you brain registers how much food you’ve got in your stomach, takes 20 minutes to kick in); (ii) meals are a highlight of the day, and definitely worth spending time on; (iii) variety, novelty, great-tasting foods and (gasp!) pleasure and fun should be the priority–none of which means eating faster.
The French, in other words, have a slow food culture, which applies as much to kids as to adults. One example: kids’ after-school activities are never scheduled during the traditional dinner hour. No one would want to impinge on one of the most important family rituals of the day.
The French even have a special word they use to encourage kids to ‘slow food’ their eating habits: déguster. Like many French words concerning food, déguster is difficult to translate. It often gets translated simply as ‘taste’ (as in ‘let’s taste the food”). But French people usually use the word ‘goûter’ to refer to the physical act of tasting something. The word déguster actually means to eat something slowly and carefully, to savor, and to appreciate (but not to revel in food, for which the French use the term se régaler). In the culinary world, the word dégustation is used to refer to a formal event at which food tasting is conducted with almost surgical precision (like a wine tasting). But ordinary French people also use the word at home, most often when they are telling their children to slow down when they’re eating.
“Il faut déguster!” my mother-in-law will often say, which literally means “Slow down and savour your food!”
The French mean ‘savour’ in the full sense of the word. In the ‘taste training’ given to children in school, they are taught to experience food through the five senses: to explore how foods sound, smell, look, and feel as well as taste. Fun games and learning activities are used to encourage this, even in the youngest of children. Children become alert and attentive to the multiple sensations and pleasures they can derive from food. And so they become more inquisitive, and eager to taste new things.
This even worked for my older daughter, a seriously picky eater who gradually learned to love trying new foods during the year we lived in France. The ‘slow food’ approach used at school, and within my extended family (my husband is French), started to rub off on us. Meals became a family ritual and a haven (and no longer a harried, stressed, rushed part of the day–and a chore I often disliked, if I’m being honest). And because I was less stressed and more focused on having fun with food, we ended up eating better, and more adventurously. This had a really transformative effect on our family: how we ate ended up changing what we ate. (And this was what inspired me to write French Kids Eat Everything).
That’s why I find it fascinating that the Slow Food movement in the US and Canada hasn’t really focused on kids. Slow Food USA had the Time for Lunch Campaign (now finished), which sought to encourage the US government to provide more support for school lunches, and revise its National School Lunch Program. And, they mention the importance of school gardens and ‘kids can cook’ classes the Slow Food USA website (with 20 or so examples from Slow Food chapters–which all sound amazing).
These are great initiatives. But I wonder if they miss the point. Slow Food isn’t something you do once in a while in a special class (although I’m sure these classes are great). Slow Food is actually a social relationship to food, and to one another–which means it is an everyday practice, something that becomes a shared ritual.
A similar criticism applies to school gardens. Not every school will have access to the resources, land, and volunteer labor necessary to create and maintain a garden. (As a gardener myself, I know just how much labor is involved.) And because gardens are voluntary, they run the risk of only reaching those schools and kids who are already interested in the issues. But what about the rest?
Transforming the way eating happens in schools (the how as well as the what of school food) requires integrating food education into the curriculum, so that all kids have access. And school lunches should be an important part of this curriculum–because learning doesn’t stop when kids enter the lunchroom. Here, we might learn a lot from France, which takes food education very seriously, and which has developed amazing curriculum and ‘taste training’ for kids of all ages.
A new campaign along these lines (called something like ‘Slow Food Schools?’) might help Slow Food to grow beyond its slightly foodie-elite niche (an unfair criticism, I know, but one I believe to be somewhat accurate). It needs to reach out, as Josh Viertel, the head of Slow Food USA , argued recently in an article in The Atlantic. In that article, Viertel offers the hope of “building a movement committed not only to the simple pleasure of the shared meal and paying the farmer fairly but to becoming a force for social change.” What better place to do this than through schools–creating the next generation of Slow Foodies?
On a pragmatic level, the school lunch reform movement is growing by leaps and bounds, but most of the parents involved in school lunch issues don’t have much to do with Slow Food chapters; it would make great sense to build these alliances into Slow Food’s next child-focused national campaign. And it might soothe ruffled feathers in the recent debate over Slow Food USA’s recent change in direction, as a Slow Food School campaign allows for the original vision of Slow Food (which includes taste and food education) to be combined with the food justice mission that the organization so clearly needs if it is to expand its reach and impact.
If this were to happen, the school food reform movement would become even more of a force to be reckoned with at the national scale. And, maybe, just maybe, the next generation of our kids would have more than 10 minutes for lunch.