Whilst having some friends around for Sunday dinner last night, the conversation turned to our time in France, and happened to coincide with discussing the coming week, bemoaning the cost of fresh produce in Australia, and the need to prepare school lunches every day.
This is one of the everyday differences between the cultural norms in France and Australia. Here, a vegemite sandwich plus a variety of snack items passes as an adequate lunch for children at school. I can only imagine what a French teacher would make of our poor children’s lunch boxes! The contrast is stark. In our small village (and I gather this is the standard across the country) a three course, chef prepared lunch is served by friendly school waitresses four days a week. Wednesday afternoon school finishes at midday and children go home to eat lunch with their family. When having lunch at school, the children sit down and have a conversation as if out for lunch at the local bistro – all for well under $5 a day! The menu changes daily, and didn’t repeat once in the entire year. Its overall balance is reviewed regularly by a panel of chefs, nutritionists and teachers. Here is one monthly menu posted as the school entrance:
It was not uncommon when walking home for the children to discuss the flavours or textures of the day’s meal and appraise their quality. They subconsciously learn appropriate portion sizes, new flavours, what is in season, and what constitutes a healthy, balanced meal. The take home message for me is this: How can we expect the next generation of Australian children, who are growing up surrounded by an obesity epidemic, to know what sort of food is healthy and nutritious, or appreciate its endless variety, unless it is an integral part of their teaching both at home and at school?
The book French Children Don’t Throw Food is an eloquent and detailed exploration of the raising of children in France and discusses the tradition of French school lunches. When reading it prior to leaving Australia, I was in slight disbelief of its description of the quality and variety offered! In searching for solutions to some of Western society’s failings, Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next visits a French school chef and contrasts it with American school lunches. In reality it is no exaggeration to say that the majority of French school children have available to them a true restaurant grade food experience every day of the semester. It is no surprise that appreciation of quality food is engrained in French culture – it is taught from childhood. Why are we not doing it here?
There have been some steps made with a traffic light coding system, but this is really a patch-up measure, and does not go to the heart of the problem. The challenges faced by our children today are different to those faced by our parents and grandparents. The interwar and postwar periods of Australia’s history were times of scarcity, where children needed to be encouraged to eat everything on their plate, and whatever was available, due to the uncertainty of future food supply. Now, our children are faced with an abundance of food, excessive advertising of poorly nutritive foods, and a culture in which commercial interest to keep both parents in the workforce means there is less time for preparation of quality school lunches, or for mum or dad to participate in providing a quality school tuck-shop.
I now have a long term dream to see something similar rolled out in Australia. Jamie Oliver has made a start in the UK with his Food Revolution campaign. It has struggled due to resistance to change, and a perception that introducing a scheme like this would be some sort of luxury. I accept that the short term cost appears high, without promise of a payoff in our myopic election cycle. However, I argue that with obesity, diabetes and the metabolic syndrome epidemic now some of the key drivers of healthcare costs, can we afford not to be properly educating the next generation on health eating? We need visionary politicians to see that this is a long term solution. Seeing your doctor, whilst crucial to your health, is too late in the process to be an effective public health measure. This starts with our children.
If this piques your interest, excites you, or you know someone who would like to step up and implement it locally I would encourage you to share this article with them or via social media as a conversation starter. Any thoughts or comments greatly appreciated.