In 2014 I wrote my first article on French school lunches for the well-known American wellbeing site MindBodyGreen (MindBodyGreen republishes my article every year, but it originally appeared in 2014). I never imagined that millions of people would eventually read and share this article, and send my writing and research into a new trajectory.
For four years following the publication of this article, I visited school cafeterias around the country and interviewed dozens of chefs, mayors, kitchen staff, parents, students, politicians and others who were directly involved in the production of French school lunches…or at least had a lot to say about them!
Since the publication of my first article on the topic, however, French school lunches have changed enormously. They have evolved from healthy to even healthier. Due to demanding parents, changes in agricultural policy, and the wider availability of organic produce, the quality of French school lunches have progressed substantially in the past eight years. I have summarised all the ins and outs of France’s school cafeterias in my e-book, “French School Lunch: Why Delicious and Nutritious Cafeteria Food is a National Priority in France“.
So what do French school lunches in public elementary schools look like in the 2022-2023 school year? First, let’s look at what has not changed!
A sit-down meal plus exercise
As I outlined in my original article, French school lunches in public elementary schools take place between the hours of 11:30 am to 1:30 pm. This time frame includes at least 40 minutes of a sit-down lunch, the rest is playing outside at recess. Children either eat the set menu at the cafeteria, or they go home during this two-hour period and have lunch at home. Aside from specific cases regarding food allergies or medical issues, no children actually bring their school to lunch.
When the children come into the cafeteria, they immediately find a spot to sit down at one of the tables that are already set with silverware, plates, glasses, napkins, water pitcher and a bread basket. At our cafeteria in particular, the tables are set up in groups of four. Older student volunteers then bring the first course to the table. After finishing the first course, volunteers bring the main course platter to the table and the children serve themselves. A cheese course usually follows, and then dessert.
Only one of the children at each table leaves their seat during lunch to fetch more water (from the tap) or bread for the bread basket. Everyone else must stay seated until the lunch period is over and outdoor recess begins.
How do kitchen staff prepare French school lunches?
Menus for the school lunch are set up two months in advance by the cafeteria management staff and then sent to a certified dietitian who makes small “corrections.” The dietitian might take out a small chocolate éclair and replace it with a kiwi for dessert if they think there’s too much sugar that week. Or they may modify suggested menus by adding more or fewer carbohydrates, vegetables, fruits, or protein to keep the balance right.
Almost all foods are prepared right in the kitchen; they’re not ready-made frozen. This means mashed potatoes, most desserts, salads, soups, and certainly the main dishes are homemade. About 60% of French elementary schools have either a kitchen on site, or a satellite kitchen that cooks for several schools in the same school district (usually bigger cities). The other 40% of elementary schools outsource their meals to a food service provider. These providers must follow the same nutritional guidelines outlined below. They will deliver fresh food ready to serve or to warm up.
At our local elementary school, for example, the chef and his two assistants arrive by 7:00 am in the morning and start preparing lunch from scratch. They are also on hand to receive any deliveries (fresh bread arrives daily from the bakery down the street for example) for the week.
What, then, has changed in the last eight years? The quality of the food served at cafeterias plus a higher awareness of the environmental impact of school lunches has changed enormously since 2014.
Organic and local foods
The French government requires elementary school cafeterias to serve 50% of their foods from local and organic sources. This directive was phased in during the 2020-2021 school year and is now complete across the country.
Today, more than 80% of elementary schools serve part of their foods from organic sources. Some schools in the country are almost completely 100% organic. These include the 2nd arrondissement of Paris and the Provençal town of Mouans-Sartoux. This legislation is a victory for wellbeing and the country’s farmers. It is a testament to the nation’s pledge to sustainability.
Vegetarian meals required
Aside from requiring local and organic foods, the government also requires one completely vegetarian meal per week at minimum. While there has been demand to serve less meat and dairy during the school day, France’s recent Agricultural Bill also highlights the environmental impact of school lunches.
As with organic foods, many schools in France already had vegetarian meals in place. Bordeaux, Marseille, Strasbourg, and other cities have been serving vegetarian meals for years. Some of them either as the main meal and others as an option to a non-vegetarian meal served. Paris’ 19th arrondissement proposes two vegetarian or vegan meals to students every week. In 2021, the mayor of Lyon introduced entirely vegetarian menus at the public school cafeterias, sparking controversy and much debate.
Limited food waste
As part of its sustainability initiatives outlined in the Agricultural Bill, France is working aggressively to address food waste issues. Each individual wastes approximately 167 grams of food, per meal, throughout the country’s public restaurants (which includes school cafeterias). This represents about one-third of each meal served.
The French government requires school cafeterias to measure the amount of waste and to publish a plan to combat it. In addition, schools will begin (or continue) to educate school-aged children about food waste. Other measures include the management and donation of unsold foods, and finding innovative and efficient solutions to avoid food waste with partners throughout the food chain. In our local school for example, local farm animals are fed with the school’s food scraps.
In 2017 France banned the use of plastic bags in supermarkets. In 2020 they have banned single-use disposable plastics such as cutlery, plates, cups and straws in public restaurants. For field trips, children bring reusable water bottles instead of commercially purchased water bottles.
What is next?
French school lunches appear to be amongst the healthiest and most delicious in the world to those outside of France. But the French themselves are highly critical of what is on offer today. This is perhaps one of the reasons the standard of school lunches continues to improve.
Parents, city councils, school associations, nutrition-related professionals and others continuously work to improve the actual food offerings at school cafeterias. They fight to grow more school gardens and advocate to include more nutrition and sustainable development education.
The next step for French school lunches is providing 100% organic and local foods. In addition, the French will develop systematic procedures for food waste.
I am aware from feedback that what children eat at school is of interest to people in all corners of the world. School lunches are not just about food and cafeterias. The topic touches upon wellbeing, health, social issues, education, farming and agriculture, the environment, politics, parenting and more. What our children eat at school should be of importance to everyone, regardless of where we live.
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Photo credit: Manon Girardin
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