Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Repas à l'école

E tells us that, next year, she's going to pack her sister's and her lunch for school every day. She'll make roast chicken sandwiches with lettuce, tomato (when it's in season, she points out), cheese, and mayonnaise (she likes mayo). She's a little concerned about the bread. She knows we won't be able to get baguettes every day, and she's not a big fan of regular sandwich bread. I think she's still mulling over that part of the equation.

We haven't had the school lunch conversation while we've been here because lunch is part of the deal at the Collège des vignes. We pay an additional fee--it averages out to a few euros per girl per day--and they eat lunch in the school canteen.

Here's what that looks like:

There's a guy in a toque (and he's not being cute; he's a chef, and that hat is his uniform, it's how you know he's the one in charge), some sous-chefs, a kitchen (stoves, ovens, sinks, prep counters, pots and pans and heat), and a cafeteria line. The kids line up with their trays. They take an entrée, a plat, and a dessert. The first course, the entrée, could be some grated carrots with vinaigrette, or it could be a boiled egg with a little mayonnaise, or some sliced beets, pâté, or a green salad. The main course, the plat, ranges from spaghetti bolognaise to boeuf bourguignon to couscous, which is not just the grain but a thick meat and vegetable stew. Dessert? They can have a piece of fruit (kiwis are popular) or a yogurt or, once in a while, a beignet. Of course there's also sliced baguette for everyone, and cheese. The food is all prepared on site. Everyone drinks water.

As far as I can determine, it is a Styrofoam-free environment. The meals are served on plates made out of something like Corelle; the kids eat with real cutlery, and drink out of heavy plastic cups. The only thing disposable is the paper napkins.

The children sit at round tables, eight or so at each, and serve each other from the water pitcher in the center. A surveillant or two keeps order--these are junior high school kids with pitchers of water: the possibilities of chaos are pretty high.

Morning classes end at noon. Afternoon classes begin at 1.30. The entire school cycles through the canteen during that hour and a half--about 700 students--eating in half-hour relays. Before and after they eat, the kids are outside in the courtyard, playing games, doing homework, fiddling with their cell phones.

We spent kindergarten through sixth grade packing lunches almost every night for school the next day: peanut butter and jelly, or mini-bagels with cream cheese, or egg salad on challah. Baby carrots or cucumber slices. Raisins or fruit cup. Occasionally a couple of Newman-Os. A day or so a week the girls bought lunch: Chips Olé, which I'm fairly sure is trademarked by Exxon, or pizza. It was a treat for us not to have to pack lunch, but thinking about the girls eating something that had been prepared in an industrial kitchen god knows where, shipped frozen to the school, microwaved, and plopped onto a Styrofoam tray--that really about outweighed the extra ten minutes on the sofa that not packing lunch bought us. Every day they bought cartons of milk to drink: plain or chocolate or strawberry.

At the girls' elementary school, the kids had about 20 minutes to eat, followed by 15 minutes on the blacktop.

So we've relished not packing lunch for these two years and hearing from the girls that they prefer paella with shrimp to pork, that the lamb in the couscous was pretty good today, and that the kiwis weren't quite ripe enough today but should be good by Friday.

And need I mention that I've never seen a pudgy kid at the Collège des vignes? Which is of course not just about the school lunches--but it's not not about the school lunches, either.

I read this a few weeks ago, and that's what precipitated the conversation that led to E planning the chicken sandwiches. Their high school--they'll be in high school next year--has an open lunch policy, which means that the students, beginning in their second year and depending on various factors, can eat lunch off campus. What's the nearest restaurant they can walk to?


If you need me, I'll be in the kitchen putting a chicken in the oven.


  1. Great post and great article. Hmmm... most of the kids in my community eat breakfast AND lunch at school. Obesity and diabetes are rampant.

  2. My husband made my son's lunch every day for 4 years. He had various varieties of sub sandwiches on baguettes from the Firehook bakery in Alexandria VA. He was very particular about the bread. He always had two cookies (homemade by me) and a piece of fruit and he bought milk. He said the school lunch was disgusting. Alice Waters is right when she says that meals and food served to our kids need to be taken seriously as part of the curriculum. What's more important than what the kids eat every day?