Earlier this year, the Conseil régional de Bourgogne (Regional Council of Burgundy, France) released a four-year charter called "Qualité de la restauration scolaire"--the quality of school food. It states that attention must be paid to the three S's: saveur, service et santé (taste, service and health).
As part of this charter, the regional council launched an initiative called Bien dans mon assiette, les terroirs de Bourgogne font école, which are meant to reinforce in students the local tastes of Burgundy, known worldwide for its incredible food.
Schools sign up for the initiative and participate in a number of ways: by cooking only from scratch; by having organic menus more often; by including more vegetarian cooking; and by having local-food-only days several times per year. No more than four fried items may be served in a given month; no canned vegetables are permitted. The rules are clear and they are exactly what one would expect from the gastronomically obsessed French, but they're working.
Here is yesterday's menu from Lycée Les Arcades in Dijon, France:
Russian salad OR farmhouse-style endive
Turkey paupiettes with hunter-style sauce OR fish medallions with almonds
Ratatouille OR mixed vegetables
Yogurt with fruit coulis OR Gouda OR Samos (fresh cheese)
Pear compote OR pastry
While Les Arcades is a private school, this menu is fairly typical even of public schools, and with the advent of the new law in the Côte d'Or, public school lunches will become even more distant from the depressing school lunches served in Orange County.
How depressing? High school students in the Capistrano Unified School District, a wealthy place full of educated people who should know better, get this as their lunch menu:
Cheeseburger OR Sub Shack sandwich OR Papa John's pizza OR carnitas burrito
Pick two sides: fruit, goldfish crackers, sunflower seeds, carrots, raisins
It's hard to know where to begin.
Where the hell are the vegetables? WHY ARE THERE NO VEGETABLES ON THIS MENU? Maybe the cheeseburger comes with iceberg and a hothouse tomato that's been gassed into timid pinkness; otherwise, the only choice for a vegetable is a handful of raw carrots. Which is worse, the processed "baby" carrots or the dried-up, curved sticks? What are vegetarians supposed to eat?
While it's possible that the fruit is ripe peaches, pears and oranges, it's more likely gassed apples and bananas or, worse, canned fruit cocktail; otherwise, you could eat a small pile of raisins. And goldfish crackers? In high school? CUSD owes its students and their parents an apology and a plan to improve this execrable mockery of nutrition.
Moving north, Troy High School in Fullerton, considered one of the best high schools in the country, isn't very much better in the nutrition department:
Papa John's pizza OR spicy chicken sandwich OR Tyson chicken chunks OR baked burrito
Pick two sides: garden salad, fruit, carrots, potatoes.
At least there's a garden salad on there. Chicken chunks, though--and not just any chicken chunks, but Tyson brand chicken chunks! (Because anyone gives a damn what brand the processed, minced, expeller-made fried chicken chunks are--oh, well, if it's Tyson brand!)
And what is with the Papa John's pizza everywhere? Can kids seriously not go a day without the overadvertised grease bomb? Why is this garbage in American schools? It's possible that there's an unadvertised salad bar full of fresh produce, but even if there is, it doesn't excuse the unhealthy crap being peddled on the main menu. School nutrition is not a zero-sum game; there isn't a cap-and-trade market for nutritional pollution.
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Whenever the news media talks about school nutrition, there's always an army of people who are ready to push the excuses. "Kids won't eat healthy food" is a great example of the let's-not-even-try-anymore people. Children are children and they eat by example. If their parents refuse to cook vegetables at home, children don't eat vegetables. If the house is full of chips, sweets and soda, then those become "normal" to the children; by contrast, kids develop a tolerance, if not a taste, for balanced meals when they eat well at home.
Another of the great many excuses is cost; it's simply cheaper to buy processed crap and feed it to the students. While that's certainly true--fresh food is more expensive and paying people to cook it is expensive--schools could dictate stricter nutritional standards to the outsource companies vying for contracts. Ketchup, for example, is not a vegetable, and schools should refuse to accept it in place of a vegetable. Biologically speaking, potatoes are vegetables, but nutritionally speaking, they're bread.
Orange County is within 150 miles--local by U.S. standards--of farms producing almost everything that can be grown, from lettuce to beef, from cheese to mangoes, yet Orange County children eat processed crap that originated in a factory designed to make sure everything is the same. Children go on field trips to farms, then stop at McDonald's on the way home.
Congratulations, Orange County. Congratulations for killing our kids by setting them up for a lifetime of bad food choices. At the very best, it's twice as hard for parents to instill good nutritional values in them. France doesn't have it all right, but they're a long way ahead of OC in the school nutrition department.