The western-most city in France, Brest lies on a sheltered harbor in Brittany. The surrounding coastline is gorgeous: rocky cliffs and enormous white sand beaches. A strategic seaport for centuries, and still an important military centre, Brest was heavily bombed by the Allies during WW II (in an attempt to drive out the occupying German army) and so has little historical architecture. But it’s still fun to visit this large university town–particularly during the world’s largest ‘tall ships’ festival, which it hosts every four years. It’s also the birthplace of Yann Tiersen, one of my favorite French musicians (and composer for the hit movie Amelie).
So, what have school-children been eating in Brest this week? As usual in France (and in line with national Ministry of Education regulations), these meals follow a set four-course pattern (salad, main course, cheese or another dairy product, dessert) which emphasizes fresh fruit and vegetables. Ketchup appears in this menu (which is fairly rare in my experience), but French regulations only allow it once per week maximum, to be served with foods for which it is a traditional condiment–in this case, French fries.
This underscores an important point about French school lunches: they are generally healthy, but also incorporate ‘treats’ in moderation. This models the eating behaviours they are trying to teach children; as Michael Pollan says, ‘treat treats as treats’, and only eat them once in a while. The French believe this is a good strategy for avoiding negative emotions (deprivation, guilt, cravings) about food that can lead to eating problems later in life. It’s an ‘everything in moderation’ philosophy that we’ve adopted at our home.
Monday, February 27th
Salad piémontaise (potatoes, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, pickles, diced ham, with mayonnaise)
Sauteed organic turkey with sauce à l’ancienne (usually a mustard sauce), organic peas and carrots
Cheese: Petit Filou (similar to a fromage frais)
Tuesday, February 28th
Leafy green organic salad with cheese or vegetable soup
Roasted fish with sauce persane (typically with cardamom, saffron, caraway, and cloves) and rice pilaff
Cheese: Fraidou, a thick, unsweetened Balkan-style dairy product
Dessert: Puree of apples and blackcurrents
Wednesday, February 29th
‘Western’ salad (kidney beans, corn, peppers)
Sauteed porc (origin: the Auge Valley) and green beans with butter
Dessert: Organic orange
Thursday, March 1st
Grated organic carrots
Couscous and vegetables
Garlic herb cheese
Dessert: Vanilla-strawberry ice cream cone (for primary schools; served in a smaller dish for preschoolers)
Friday, March 2nd
Organic celery salad with vinaigrette or vegetable soup
Ground Charolais (a high quality, certified) beef and french fries, with ketchup
Dessert: Organic banana
When they have finished eating, children can go and play or participate in activities organized by City Hall. With a two-hour break at lunch time, and because lunch is the largest meal of the day (representing 40% of caloric intake), the French believe it is important for children to move and digest before heading back to the classroom.
As is the case throughout France, supplying meals to children is the responsibility of the municipality, which sets prices so that all families are partially subsidized (usually via local taxes), and lower-income families pay less. In the case of Brest, 75% of the cost of the meals and lunchtime activities is covered by city hall (that is, out of its local tax revenues). This is a pretty high figure, but there seem to be few complaints about it in France, as the idea of supporting children and families is deeply embedded in this country’s culture.
One book which explores the contrast between the French and American approaches to parenting is Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety by Judith Warner. Moving back to the US after starting her family in France, Warner is surprised by the lack of support for families, and the relatively few employment options for women (even middle-class women like herself). She argues that while children are enormously valued privately in the US, they and their families do not receive enough public (i.e. government) support. Although it is definitely a partial view (framed by being middle-class and living in Washington and Paris, which is definitely not reflective of the experience of all moms in either France or the US), her book is still a thought-provoking read about the different ways in which public policy should (or perhaps should not) be used to support mothers of young children.
This blog post is part of my French Kids School Lunch Project. Every week, I post the school lunch menus from a different village or town in France, where three-course, freshly-prepared hot lunches are provided to over 6 million children in the public school system every day. These meals cost, on average, $3 per child per day (and prices for low-income families are subsidised). My hope is that these menus (together with my other blog posts about the French approach to kid’s food) will spark a conversation about what children CAN eat, and how we can do better at educating them to eat well.