French School Lunches: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Some French kids are on holiday this week (their version of March break). So instead of sharing a menu, I thought I’d share some facts about French school lunches. This has been prompted by the response to my French School Lunch Project, which has been running for several months now. Although my main focus is on a ‘Tour de France’ of school menus, some readers have written asking for a more systematic summary of the economics and logistics of school lunches in France. Here it is!

Why are school lunches so important for the French?

Lunch is traditionally the largest meal of the day in France, representing (at least according to the French Ministry of Education) 40% of children’s caloric intake. French children tend not to snack between meals, and eat a relatively late dinner (at 7:30 or 8 pm), in addition to their one sanctioned snack of the day: the after-school goûter. So it’s important to have a big lunch to tide them over to dinner-time.

What is a cantine?

The best way to think about a school cantine (cafeteria) in France is to imagine what your school cafeteria would have been like if the food had been made by cordon bleu chefs-in-training, overseen by a nutritionist, and served to you at the table by maternal waiters (who were only too happy to cut up your food if you couldn’t quite manage it). The official term restaurant scolaire (school restaurant) sums it up perfectly.

More seriously, a cantine is a lot like a cafeteria, except that younger students are usually served their food (the meals are not self-service until they are in high school). There are no vending machines in French schools (they are banned by law), and children are strongly discouraged from bringing their own meals from home (and most don’t). So the cantine is the place where the majority of French children eat lunch on school days.

How long have French cantines existed?”

As a universal institution in France, the cantine has been around since 1945. The origins of the cantine help explain the sense of social mission: they were started after World War II, in the context of food scarcity and rationing, to give children at least one balanced, hot meal per day. Many cantines found in many government offices and workplaces were created at the same time.

What is a school lunch like?

For primary school students, the lunch is three or four courses: a salad starter, a warm main course, cheese, and dessert. There is only one choice on the menu, and they are served at the table. This may be why the place where lunch is eaten is called a ‘restaurant scolaire‘ (school restaurant). High-school students typically get two choices for each course and often eat in a ‘self’ (meaning a self-serve cafeteria), although many French parents are ambivalent about this self-service model (preferring the idea of a restaurant).

Ministry of National Education requirements are that children sit at the table for a minimum of 30 minutes–in order to eat their food sufficiently slowly and properly.

How many children do they serve?

According to the organization ‘Cantine Scolaire’, 6 million French children eat lunches at the cantine every day.

Who is responsible for managing school cantines?

Municipal governments are responsible for pre-school and school lunches. Often, schools have a built-in kitchen and dining room. Where they don’t, meals are usually provided by the municipality via one or more ‘central kitchens’, which in some cases will supply a number of schools. In some cases, these kitchens are run by the municipality, but there is an increasing (and controversial) trend to out-sourcing meal preparation to large private companies like Sodexo. However, even where a private company prepares the meals it is the municipality’s responsibility to monitor them, serve them, and provide staff to help the children eat. (High schools have a separate system, and usually have an built-in, large kitchen on the premises.)

Parents are often also involved, through being members of the committee that oversees menu choices, food purchasing, and other logistics. In fact, French parents take school lunches very seriously. When we were living in France, the first question I would often hear parents ask when they picked their kids up was: ‘how was your lunch today?’!

(Note: this means that school lunches are under local control, unlike in the US, which has a variety of national programs, like the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and the Special Milk Programme. France does have a national program, funded by the European Union, called ‘a fruit at recess’, where they hand out fresh fruits for afternoon snack).

Who pays, and how much does it cost?

The relevant French law allows municipalities to set their own prices, but also allows for a sliding scale, and caps prices — with the goal of allowing all children to have equal access. So prices vary between French municipalities. But the average price per meal paid by parents is somewhere between $3 and $3.50 (as compared to $2.70 for the SNAP-funded meals in the US). In Paris, for example, most families pay $3, the wealthiest families pay $7, and the lowest-income families pay 20 cents per meal. (In many cases, municipalities subsidize lower-income families through general tax revenues, and have mechanisms to make meals available free).

What is on the menu?

The foods that French kids eat at lunch are amazing! Roast guinea fowl for pre-schoolers, beet salad, endive….for a full list of menus from around France see the weekly posts at my French Kids’ School Lunch Project.

The French Ministry of Education has strict regulations governing portion sizes, nutritional composition, and cooking methods. For example, over the course of 20 meals (one month), only 4 main dishes and 3 desserts can be high fat (more than 15%). Fried food can only be served four times per month. Schools must limit ketchup to once per week (many don’t serve it at all). Schools are not allowed, in fact, to leave any sauce, mayonnaise, salad dressing, or ketchup available to students to serve themselves freely. Oh, and no sugared, flavoured milks. The kids get water at lunch. Dairy requirements are met through cheese or another dairy product like yogurt.

What about allergies?

I haven’t been able to find the definitive answer to this question, but some schools will prepare individual meals for any child with a medical certificate.

Criticisms of the French approach to school lunches

Although many French schools provide substitutes for pork, they do not serve officially certified halal options, leading to the potential exclusion of devout Muslim students from school. Remember, students are strongly discouraged from bringing lunches from home; so if they want to eat halal, they can’t eat at school. Given the large Muslim population of France (although statistics are not kept, it is estimated between 5 to 8% of the population), this is a potentially serious issue. (For some reason I have not yet figured out, kosher food doesn’t seem to inspire the same controversy).

Moreover, over-crowded cantines have led some schools–mostly in bigger cities–to create policies of prioritizing students based on whether or not their parents work: children of families with two working parents get priority spots, then children of families with one working parent. Children whose parents don’t work are given lowest priority, on the theory that it should be easier for parents to pick them up and bring them home for lunch. But the sense of exclusion and shame that this might foster for the unemployed (not to mention the fact that someone actively seeking work might not have 2.5 hours at lunch time to take their kids home and feed them) has incited controversy in France, with some suggesting that these policies should be outlawed, and that everyone should have equal access.

The Ministry of Education regulations which govern the types of food that cantines must serve have been criticized by parents who want vegetarian diets for their children (the word ‘vegetarian’ is not used consistently in France — some use it to refer to a diet without red meat, whereas others use it in the English sense).

Debate has also arisen in recent years about whether all French cantines actually respect the strict Ministry of Education regulations. Most recently, there has been a debate about whether the ground beef used in kids’ meals was too high in fat, but this seems to concern only a relatively small number of products (sometimes fraudulently ‘certified’) that make their way into the system, at least according to health inspectors.

And some argue that French cantines don’t go far enough–that the meals should be healthier, with more organic options. This is the argument made by Philippe Durrèche and Jacques Pélissard (President of the Association of French Mayors) and in their book ‘Cafeterias: Kingdom of Bad Food‘? (Cantine: Le règne de la mal-bouffe?). They also decry the increasing trend of outsourcing the production of meals to ‘mega-kitchens’ run by private companies, which they argue produces an antispetic cuisine that prioritizes food safety over tasty food. (I think that their views must be taken with a grain of salt, given the very high expectations that the French have of the food they eat! For example, the book defends unpasteurized cheese in cafeterias, but many schools don’t want to take the risk-even if slight-of any children becoming ill).

So, the French cantine engenders active debate in France (and I’m sure I’ve missed some criticisms, which I’d be happy if readers pointed out). However, most French people seem very supportive of the idea of the cantine, and defend its principles of quality, universality, and accessibility. Debate usually arises when these principles aren’t being met–but this is a sign of support for cantines, as a central part of the lives of French school children.

Next week, back to my weekly menus. Bon Appétit!

ps Any questions, please ask! I’d be happy to include more topics here.

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8 thoughts on “French School Lunches: The good, the bad, and the ugly

  1. Great question! I think overall caloric intake is an important factor. The French diet has a high proportion of fruits, vegetables, and fibre; a higher proportion of the foods they consume are low-calorie but highly nutritious. Another issue is portion control – their portions are smaller than in, say, North America. ‘Screen time’ is also an issue: French kids get, on average, about half of the screen time that North American children get. Studies have shown that reducing screen time (without making any other changes in children’s lives) reduces obesity. Variety may also be a factor: because the lunches rotate through many different foods and all the food groups are represented. But it is one factor among many! See my post on this: https://karenlebillon.com/2012/09/17/french-kids-dont-get-fat-why/

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  2. hi,

    I recently read that the low level of childhood obesity in france could be linked to the high level of variation they have in their school lunches? what is your take on france’s varying school lunch menu, and the low level of obesity in france?

    many thanks,

    sophie

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  3. Pingback: https://karenlebillon.com/2012/03/11/french-school-lunches-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/ | FSF 1P0

  4. Thanks for the link!
    Our local ‘GIG’ Gluten Free Friends has recently begun a kids group – I’ll pass it on to my daughter & her best friend!
    I really like what I’ve seen of the focus of your book!
    My kids, growing up with a Biologist dad & a big garden (plus wildcrafting) also ‘ate everything’ & were encouraged to try new things, help cook, plan meals, & if they served themselves, finish their plate (unless something was clearly not the best!) They are now 38 & 41, & their children also help garden & readily try new foods – we call Lambs Quarters (wild quinoa) ‘Emily Spinach’ as she loves her greens SO much! At 8, she will go out & pick enough for a nice mess, then cook them herself!

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  5. Thanks for this. Have you checked out Robyn O’Brien’s Allergy Kids Foundation? http://www.allergykids.com/. Might be of interest. And, yes, it is hard to eat Gluten Free in France, although it is getting much easier these days, as awareness is growing.

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  6. Very interesting! & the menus from the Fr School Lunch Project are fascinating!

    I am intrigued about the approach to allergies/ special diet requirements.
    Our Oregon family is Gluten Free, after DNA testing, & dairy/egg free as well (allergies), so meals heavy in cheese, dairy & gluten would be off the menu for my granddaughters! (they can only have school lunch ~ once a week)
    Italy, Ireland & Finland have the highest rates of Celiac disease (~ 1/ 133) with other European countries a bit lower; but intolerance plagues ~ 1/3 or 1/4 of most populations. Symptoms of intolerance (Celiac Disease is a subset of intolerance) can include learning disorders (ADD, ADHD, Dyslexia (our family problem) etc), low tooth enamel, anxiety, migraines, digestive issues, skin problems … No doctor recognized the relationship of the issues to intolerance, & since we’re not allergic, blood tests didn’t show any problem with wheat! So it would be interesting to see how that would affect food choices!

    This article has great suggestions for dining GF in France in general: http://www.celiacchicks.com/uncategorized/gluten-free-france-without-fear.html – her comment on diagnoses: “The number of celiacs in France is estimated to be pretty much the same as in other countries, although the number of actually diagnosed celiacs is comparatively somewhat lower.”

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  7. Great comments – and I do agree! I do mention some of them (e.g. origins of cantine) in the home page of the French Kids School Lunch Project, but hadn’t mentioned the cantinière – so true! And your point about the tension between prices and ‘gentrification’ is very true as well. The interesting thing (from a North American perspective) is that many cities and towns have cross-subsidies, so that all children have the same meal, but pay (in some cases very) different prices. I found Paris to be fascinating in this respect, with a range in price of approximately 20 cents to 7 dollars for the same meal (the average price being around 3 dollars).

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  8. Some small remarks :

    * Cantines are older that you say. The first ones date from the middle of the 19th century.

    * Cantines were, for a very long time, for poor children. Bourgeois stay-at-home mothers would pick their child and give him lunch at home. The gentrification of the cantine that you point, for example in the Versailles’ menu, are a consequence of the
    fact that most women work now full-time, like in the US.

    * The new demographics of the cantine has started a gentrification of the meals. Bourgeois parents push for more healthy, more organic food and more formal meals. Poor parents are more interested in low prices.

    * If your child have serious allergies, you can negotiate a convenant called a Pacte d’accueil individualisé between the school, the cantine, your doctor, the school’s doctor and the parents. Generally, the Pacte d’accueil individualisé will authorize the child to bring a lunchbox with the food he can eat and store it in the cantine’s fridge.

    * You should pay more credit to the cantinière, the soul of a cantine and an essential part of education through commensality.

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