Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mal Bouffe

Both my kids hate school lunches here. Lunch at the crèche was okay as far as I remember because they cooked everything on the premises and we were told exactly what they had and what they ate whether we had 3 hours to spare picking them up at the end of the day or exactly 2.5 minutes.

Those were the happy days of edible institutional food. These days, they get an industrial offering from some huge central kitchen and come home ravenous. Amazingly though, you can often read about fabulous French school meals and how expat parents are stunned at the varied menus each with three courses (plus apero, peanuts, wine, bread roll, digestif, coffee and mints...).

Where are these schools and colleges? I live in an affluent area and my kids eat exactly the same crap as the école/collège poubelle on the other side of town. The scandal of industrial school meals is not merely in my fevered militant foodie imagination. The M6 programme Envoyé Special did a report on it back in April. They were certainly not eulogising about three courses and an array of organic veggies.

What they found was a scandal that would suit Jamie Oliver's crusading spirit quite as much as the one he needed to influence UK school meals. ES found that meals are prepared 7 days in advance then frozen and then driven up to 600km to their final destination - a microwave oven in a school canteen. Fifty percent of school canteens are supplied by one huge company, and it spends 1€60 per meal on food.

In some cases, to increase profit margins, vegetables which they know kids hate, such as celery and cabbage, are included. You won't find a fresh vegetable or fresh meat anywhere on the menu - too perishable. Sauces are freeze-dried, burgers are 80% fat, fried eggs are frozen and yoghurts are at their limit of sell-by dates, if they're not already passed it.

No probs, you might think, your little darlings can take a packed lunch. No they can't. It is totally out of the question that kids take sarnies. They can go home, yes, fine if you're at home, not so fine if you're at work. Why the no sarnie rule I don't know. The kids couldn't possibly eat worse than the crap they get served on their plates. At a guess, it's probably in the industrial kitchen contract that forbids alternative sources of food. That and maybe schools get a cut of every lunch sold...

If you want to read some of the gushing reviews of French school lunches try these:
School Lunch Abroad
Idlewords although this one does date back to 2003...
BBC back in 2005 on a Parisian school

Where do these people send their kids to school? What is this myth of the fabulous French school lunch? I wish my kids, both in different schools, had such food on offer. I'm sure they do too!


  1. I know that my neighbour's daughter in law is furious because the school canteen has just been abolished in favour of food from a central kitchen - and her kids really dislike what's now on offer.

    And French hospital food has to be rejected to be believed....

  2. Laurels...resting...

    30 years (or so) ago on an exchange trip to the Loire valley, I was astounded at the amazing quality of the school meals I ate there, as good as many UK restaurants of the time. They've obviously been sitting on their bay trees since then.

  3. Fly - I've been in hospital twice in France, to give birth. The first time the food was vile and inedible, the second time it was waaay better - edible, in fact. I was much relieved because if you're in a fragile state, food is of great comfort, and if you're denied that comfort, it makes your fragile state that much worse!

    PG - sounds like the lunches in those links, those schools who don't buy from a central kitchen.

  4. What got my goat was that the food served to Mr. Fly was inedible while the food in the staff canteen was super...as I found out by tracking down his consultant there to the shock, awe and horror of all concerned.
    Mr Fly survived on food brought in by his Turkish builder and friends, creeping up the backstairs.
    They knew about hospital food and knew how to circumvent it.

  5. This seems to be a problem once one comes within the orbit of a reasonably large town.

    Both our little village canteen (average attendence about 45) and the much larger collège / lycée one in town serve a large proportion of food prepared on site.

    But the economics of hot distribution from a central kitchen just aren't there for such a small market.

    Of course if all the institutions in Fontenay le Comte got together they could support such a place, but that isn't going to happen.

  6. I have lived in France and Germany and found that many of the glowing stories about these two countries are a myth. The Germans are not efficent and there is much bad food in France. Most britains think that almost any other country is better than theirs, but this is just not the case. I am much more contented living in Britain have spent some years living and working abroad. I would not live in any other country than England.

  7. Fly, that sounds pretty third worldy!

    My ex-h is a doc, and we lived in Perpignan for 6 months eating mostly at the interne's canteen. The food was so disgusting it was unbelievable.

    Jon, that must be it - the size of town, and we live right near Montpellier so we're stuffed.

    Johnny - you're right, there's much bad food here. People are often discontented though because they don't count their blessings, think the grass is always greener and don't move about enough to realise that nowhere is perfect.

  8. Primary schools seem ok and yes generally, secondary schools are absolutely rubbish on the food front. Being a lazy mum, I'm glad they they are not allowed packed lunches but agree that the principle is totally wrong. I caused a near riot last term by sending mine with sarnies - why? Well the canteen ladies were on strike, the kids still had to go to school (and as my eldest is in 3ieme skiving didn't seem like a sensible option) - the kids were told they could go home or be served with a piece of bread and a packet of crisps. Perfect brain food for growing teens... So I sent mine with proper packed lunches and told them to get all their mates to do the same. Caused much 'ooh la la ing' from some quarters. Dinner ladies were mightily pissed off that the kids could evidently survive the school day without their rubbish offerings.

    It really annoys me too when they run out of food before the end of service. I'm paying for this! Can you imagine going to the supermarket and being charged for something that is out of stock....


    Great blog by the way! xx

  9. Sarah said

    "realise that nowhere is perfect"

    Ah you have not lived in Norfolk then. It near to it for us.

  10. Hi Catharine - thank you for your kind words!
    I'm a lazy mum too :). However, if the kids don't eat much/any lunch, and I still have to pay for it, I'd rather they took sarnies. My youngest doesn't like cheese at all and as there's no choice, if it's a cheese-based meal he's stuffed.

    Great militant sarnie action on your part!

    Johnny, how lovely! Still, it's in the UK so gets the usual gov interference.

  11. Sarah,

    Check this out.


  12. I loved Catherine's sarnie rebellion!
    As to the hospital, the inefficiency had to be seen to be believed and the food wasn't the worst aspect.
    He's been in a different hospital since which was super efficient with happy staff, but the food was equally revolting.
    As you say, when you're fragile, food plays a big part in picking you up and you shouldn't have to rely on your builder and his friends to bring in food their wives had cooked!
    Nice of them, though, the food was great!

  13. Johnny - fascinating times. I'm glad they're going to sort out libel amongst other things. About time too.

    Fly - lucky for Mr Fly that the builders were there. I bet all those people who witter on about how marvellous French medicine and French food are really make you grind your teeth.


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