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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 September, 2004, 10:43 GMT 11:43 UK
School dinners: No joke in France

By Joanna Robertson
BBC correspondent, Paris

School dinners in Britain have never had a good reputation, and with the current obesity problem, food education has never been more important.

With this in mind, Joanna Robertson explains how the French have turned nutritional education into child's play.

Girls with school dinners
In the 1970s French school food had a bad reputation
Delphine Gillaizeau, 34, Parisian and very pregnant, was drinking a café au lait.

It was one of those early-autumn Paris mornings that would have sent Edith Piaf into bittersweet song.

The sky a bottomless blue, the chestnut trees slipping into golden brown, the leaves beginning to fall.

Delphine, however, was turning a faint shade of unseasonable green. We were discussing school lunches.

"Ugh, I can still remember it, celeri remoulade and grated beetroot. So horrible," she said.

That was Paris in the 1970s.

Delphine's soon-to-be-born daughter, Marie, will have an altogether different experience when she trots along to "la cantine" - the school dining room - in about three years time, for France is suddenly very concerned with "l'alimentation des enfants", or "what the children eat".

The cheeses will be Camembert and Brie, with walnut bread, and there is a choice of fresh fruit to finish
Take my daughter, Lilli. She is five-years-old. I can tell you right now what lunch she will be lining up for, with rigid French discipline this coming Monday.

She will have a salad of endives to start; then organic turkey escalopes, served in a sauce normande - that will be apples and cream - and accompanied by cauliflower with parsley.

The cheeses will be Camembert and Brie, with walnut bread, and there is a choice of fresh fruit to finish.

Glossy menu

As part of the French government's push to improve child nutrition, the exemplary menus at Lilli's local school, which once were simply pasted onto the notice board each week, have now expanded into glossy bi-monthly handouts.

Fruit and vegetables
The school ensures meals contain seasonal fruit and vegetables
I now know, far in advance, exactly what Lilli and her chums will be eating on any given day.

To ensure a fully balanced diet, there is even a suggested dinner menu for each weekday evening.

On Monday - if I ever get my act together - I should prepare a green salad with croutons; a gratin of ham and cracked wheat in a bechamel sauce, and fromage frais with fresh fruit.

The school menus - always four courses - introduce different French cheeses each month, along with seasonal fruit and vegetables, and all kinds of meat, fish and fowl.

Not a chicken nugget in sight... or maybe... Yes! Once a month, "quelle horreur!", "la cuisine Americaine" has sneaked in, albeit preceded by classic French hors d'oeuvres and soberly flanked by green vegetables. When pronounced in French, however, it sounds almost wholesome, "les nuggets", "les wings"...

Gastro world

Delphine was looking less green.

We met each other whilst living in Rome when motherhood was not a thought that dallied in her coiffed French head.

Orange tree
In the middle of Lilli's school stood an orange tree

Lilli was only two, but already toddling about in a gastronomic world thanks to the local school.

Pizza Bianca - flat white bread brushed with olive oil, bought hot and crispy from the baker across the street - was munched by all the children and staff at mid-morning.

A couple of hours later it would be a lunch of pasta, then meat, fish, eggs or fowl, a vegetable, and a "dolce" or dessert.

Late afternoon there would be a "merenda", a jam cornetto; or bread and honey, a peach, clementines or figs.

In the centre of Lilli's Roman schoolyard grew an orange tree, each year heavy with fruit. And an abundant grapevine climbed up the back of the building.

The children were surrounded by food, either growing about them, or being prepared in the myriad small bakers, pasta shops, pastry shops, butchers, fishmongers and markets.

They knew where the food on their table had come from.

Purple feet

An early Italian school trip was to a farm, where Lilli and her friends Flavio, Viola and the rest of the class of three-year-olds picked olives to be pressed for oil; trod grapes for wine, and baked "schiacciata", hearth bread, over a wood fire.

Lilli returned home with a bottle of red wine for her mother
They returned sleepy and happy, clutching lengths of delicious schiacciata and a welcome bottle of rough red wine for their parents. Lilli fell into bed that night with indelibly grape-stained purple feet.

The farm experience was repeated recently with her French school.

Together with Hugo, Pierre and Margot, Lilli baked baguettes, held trembling new-born chicks, and was told in great detail what each doe-eyed animal was in terms of its meat; and just how many good lunches there were to look forward to.

The class then trooped back to Paris and took out 26 pairs of rounded kindergarten scissors to cut out steaks, bavettes and roasts from brown-paper cow shapes marked with dotted lines.

When baby Marie is born, Delphine must reluctantly leave Paris for a stint in Berlin.

Never mind, I reassured her, baby Marie will still have good food.

When Lilli was four, we lived in Berlin. And every winter morning, through the icy windowpanes of the local kindergartens, candles glowed as the children gathered for a breakfast of hot milk, eggs, fresh rolls and honey at tables where songs were sung.

And as for that farm experience, the local Berlin playground has hens to feed, and baskets to collect the eggs.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 30 September, 2004 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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