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?