I always admired the French for their culinary culture but it was not until I saw last week’s CBS News’ report on “France’s Gourmet School Lunches” that I realized just how deeply ingrained and important food is to the French.
Children in France’s public schools delight in five course lunches which include dishes such as bouillabaisse, mussels and escargot. These lunches are not merely designed to delight children’s palate and to maintain the cultural spirit of French cuisine. The meals are specially thought out to fight obesity and build healthy (balanced) eating habits. Each day, parents are given a copy of the daily menu so that they can plan out the meals for the rest of the day.
Unlike the US where children have been put at danger of contamination with food borne illness, France’s school kitchens are quite high on food safety. Everything is cleaned prior to being served and schools keep samples of each meal served just in case an outbreak of food borne illness does happen. This is incredibly important when you think about how easily children can get sick from things like salmonella or E.Coli.
If you think this is just about as good as it can get, well..there is more. Chefs working at school kitchens sometimes come from high end restaurants (could have something to do with the high unemployment rate or maybe it is just the love of food) and work on getting the most local ingredients possible. I think they have something good going on.
From what I remember my school lunches included dry cardboard cheeseburgers that sat under a heating lamp and were served with fries and chocolate milk. Other days we’d get Jamaican beef patties (how I loved Fridays) and I remember getting crispy, greasy tater tots as well. Not much in the way of health. This could be why our nation ranks so poorly when it comes to obesity. USA Today just came out with a report that states that the U.S. is “the fattest nation among 33 countries with advanced economies”. Two thirds of us are overweight, and one third of us are obese. According to the CDC. This obesity costs taxpayers $147 billion dollars in 2008.
This is certainly related to a culture where one idolizes excess. Shows like Man vs Food (recently smacked down by Alton Brown) promote unhealthy binge eating. Competitive eaters such as “The Black Widow” are idolized, or perhaps we just enjoy watching a train wreck. On top of this, we have chef-lebrities like Paula Deen pushing recipes laden in butter, fat, cheese and carbs. Her show is enough to employ every cardiologist in town. If you go to her website and check out her Macaroni and Cheese recipe, there is no nutritional information (not any that I could find). On top of this are those great Olive Garden “Never ending pasta bowls” and the clerks at Burger King and McDonald’s asking you to “supersize it”.
Is it any wonder that we are building a nation of unhealthy people?
These issues are starting to come to light and we are trying to do something about them. Michelle Obama, has taken big steps to work towards better nutrition for our nation’s children. In January she vowed to make the fight against childhood obesity her initiative. She started the Let’s Move! campaign which focuses on providing healthy foods in schools, improving physical activity AND providing access to healthy, affordable foods for all. Currently, congress is working on a child nutrition bill that was passed by the Senate last month. The problem is that it would cut into food stamp benefits and Republicans think it would be too expensive and right now it looks like the house will go on recess without hashing out the bill. It just seems that whenever we are heading in the right direction red tape smacks us right in the face.
I hope that things start heading in the right direction and I think they will. I do not expect overnight changes, but i do hope that our government starts working together for the good of the people and not just to win the next election.