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Can 'Cuisine' Make a Better School Lunch?

French kids eat like adults, and learn about food in the classroom. Should ours? Second in a series.

Katie Hyslop 8 Oct 2014Tyee Solutions Society

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

Produced by Tyee Solutions Society (TSS). Other publications wishing to publish this story or other TSS-produced articles, please see this page for contacts and information.

[Editor’s note: In today's economy, packaged or prepared "kid-ready" meals can be a tempting solution for stressed-out parents. But the results aren't good for Canadian kids, with the number of them struggling with obesity on the rise. In response, a loose alliance of educators, parents, farmers and doctors argue that it's time to go back, for some of us way back, to the way our forebears ate: fresh food, made from scratch, eaten together. In this series, Tyee Solutions Society reporter Katie Hyslop visits farms, schools, full-length mirrors and our own kitchen cupboards to examine how we lost our way when it comes to feeding our kids, and how we can get back on the path to wholesome, healthy eating.]

How long do you take to eat lunch?

A recent survey found the majority of Canadians took an hour or less for lunch. But when Canadian-born Karen Le Billon moved from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Brittany, France for a year with her French husband and two young daughters, she was surprised to learn the French take lunch very seriously. Two-hour-breaks seriously.

"Lunch is about 50 per cent of their caloric intake for the day. So parents are really invested in their kids eating well," Le Billon, a University of British Columbia geography professor now living back in Vancouver, told The Tyee Solutions Society.

So invested that every school in France has a hot lunch program serving a four-course meal, including a vegetable appetizer to make sure kids eat their greens. Almost no one brings lunch from home.

In France, lunch isn't just the most important meal of the day; it's part of education. Food is covered in almost every grade, said Le Billon, from learning to grow food in a garden to an entire unit on dairy -- another food that gets its own course at lunch. Kids aren't only taught what to eat by memorizing a food guide, but how to eat -- what many refer to as "food literacy."

The learning doesn't stop in the classroom: kids from pre-school to high school are exposed to nutritious and delicious foods they might not otherwise eat, such as lentils, veal, salmon or ratatouille.

Le Billon was so impressed with how the French treat food and kids in general that she wrote a book about it. But the experience made her less than happy to see how lunch is treated at her daughter's Vancouver school.

"They get officially 10 minutes to unpack, eat and [clean up], and they're sitting at their desks," she said, adding kids in France get at least half an hour to eat before playtime. "I love the school, but I don't agree with its approach. Many [Canadian] schools are the same."

Schools teach music and sports, which Le Billon acknowledges as important, but "very few of our kids are going to be violinists in a symphony or to be sports stars professionally. But they're all going to have to eat three times a day for the rest of their lives, and how well they eat will determine their success."

French kids don't get fat -- that often

France doesn't have a national lunch program of the kind the United States does, which some health advocates are calling for in Canada. Instead, municipalities determine with input from parents and teachers what should be served. The municipality covers half the expense, while per-meal fees cover the other half. An average meal costs three euros, about $5 Canadian, and low-income families' meals are "basically free," Le Billon said.

The cafeteria at her daughter's elementary school in Brittany was more like a restaurant, where children seated at tables were served four course meals consisting of a veggie appetizer; a hot main dish with grains, veggies and a baguette; cheese and dessert, which is usually a piece of fruit except on Fridays when they get a "sweet treat."

Ketchup isn't a vegetable in France -- it wasn't even allowed on the menu more than once a week at Le Billon's Brittany school. Water is the only beverage available.

Food is either prepared in the school's own kitchen, or in a community kitchen to cut down on costs, and is made from fresh, and where possible, local ingredients.

There are no options for young kids if they don't want to eat what's put on their plates, forcing them to try foods they're wary of but might end up loving. But while there are special meals for kids with a doctor's note, there usually aren't substitutions available for religious reasons, a controversial move in a country with a significant population of Muslims eating a halal diet.

Envying France's attitude towards food is nothing new -- see Mireille Guiliano's bestselling book French Women Don't Get Fat -- but Le Billon said the country's attitude towards kids and food is significant because French kids don't get fat either, at least not as often as Canadian kids.

Incidences of overweight and obese children in France are increasing, but are still among the lowest in the industrialized world, according to the OECD's "Fit Not Fat" study. The World Obesity Federation found that slightly less than 15 per cent of French kids were overweight or obese in 2006/07, compared to 25 per cent (and rising) of Canadian children surveyed in 2004.

The French program arguably has its flaws beyond the issue of religious accommodation. Some districts take a lax attitude to government food guidelines, or to prioritizing meals for students with working parents, preferring to assume that kids with non-working parents eat lunch at home. Nonetheless, Le Billon believes our kids could benefit a lot if we picked up some French ways.

"This is community action," she said of the municipality-run lunch programs. "This is [French] communities deciding, 'this is worth doing for our kids and we want them to be able to experience this and learn this important skill.'"

Shorter lunches ideal: Vancouver principal

Le Billon's daughter doesn't attend Graham Bruce Elementary in East Vancouver, but the school's lunch set up is pretty similar to most others in the city and at least on the surface, the polar opposite of the two-hour hot lunches in France.

But underneath the surface of speedy eating and a patchwork of different meal programs is a safety net for catching vulnerable students, giving parents a break from lunch packing and helping harried school staff. There are so many meal programs available across the district that we will only deal with elementary schools in this article.

Last May, The Tyee Solutions Society visited Graham Bruce school during their 47-minute lunch break. The bell rings at 12:10 p.m. and kids from Grades 1 to 7 file into the gymnasium-sized activity room and unpack their homemade lunches at one of the long tables arranged in five rows.

Kindergarten students eat at their desks, watched over by either the education assistant or an older student, while teachers take their break in the staff room.

The nearly 200 students have 15 minutes to file into the activity room, unpack their lunches, eat, and clean up before playtime. But principal Lani Morden says students can take an extra 15 minutes if necessary before they're shuffled outside to play until the bell rings at 12:57 p.m.

The lunch part of the break is so short, Morden explains, because the school custodian who sets up the tables before lunch needs time to take them down again as the activity room doubles as a before and after-school daycare, evident from the couches, toys and bookshelves lining a far wall.

All elementary schools in the district run on the same daily schedule, although whether they play or eat first varies. Morden hasn't seen the French lunch program in action, but she believes a shorter lunch break is still best.

"My experience as an administrator is if lunch [including playtime] is too long, office referrals sometimes increase," she said with a laugh during an interview in her Graham Bruce office.

"Lunch time is what we would consider to be a less-structured time, and sometimes more situations would occur out on the school grounds that may require added [staff] support."

Brown bag lunches

Vancouver schools all get the same lunch break length, but how they break bread differs from school to school. Focusing on elementary schools only, here are the lunch programs available in the district:

- Nine of Vancouver's 90 elementary schools are funded by provincial Community Link dollars to provide universal hot breakfast and lunch programs. "Universal" means any child, no matter what their income, can eat; according to the school board, the nine schools have the district's most vulnerable students.

- Six schools have for-pay hot lunch programs where students pay full price for food. This helps subsidize the universal programs because both get their food from the same five local vendors. Most meals for the elementary program are cooked off-site, at vendor commissaries in Vancouver.

- Six of the 90 schools, including Graham Bruce, participated in the Lunch To Go pilot program. Participating kids received a subsidized daily meal that met provincial guidelines and Canada's Food Guide. The district hopes to continue Lunch To Go this year with Community Link funding left over from the nine universal meal programs.

- Graham Bruce and an unknown number of other schools order in meals like sushi, pitas or cheese pizza for students three Fridays a month. Cost to parents is low, about $3 to $5 per meal, ordered a month in advance. "We were hearing that parents were choosing schools based on whether they had this type of service," Morden said. The program also makes a profit, raising about $1,500 a year that goes toward school goals like new playground equipment to replace an old, rotting one that was torn down in July. (B.C. Education Ministry guidelines now prohibit fundraising by selling candy.)

French dining in Vancouver

Just as Vancouver's public schools offer a variety of meal programs, so too do the city's independent schools. One of the nicest is found across town from Graham Bruce in Vancouver's wealthy Dunbar neighbourhood, at the cafeteria in the junior campus of St. George's, which looks how you imagine a French school's would. Located in the basement of the 102-year-old building, rows of dark wood tables lined with dark wood chairs sit on the cafeteria's tiled floor, surrounded by dark wood wainscoting, big windows and portraits of distinguished-looking old men lining the walls. This space needn't double as anything other than a place to eat.

Unlike Graham Bruce, the St. George's junior school has a hot lunch program for 150 kids (at a cost of $1,125 a year, on top of the $19,000 in tuition for junior students). Meals for both the junior and senior campuses are cooked in the school's kitchen by five cooks and served by 15 part-time service staff. The kitchen is managed by Sodexo, a global food service company that also operates cafeterias in hospitals, universities, corporate offices and seniors' homes around the world, including an increasing number of French schools, prompting a bubbling controversy.

The rest of the 300 junior campus students bring food from home, go out to eat on nearby Dunbar St., or participate in the school's bagged lunch program starting at $6 a meal. Lunch runs from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., with those in the cafeteria getting 30 minutes to eat.

The menu has been recently changed to include mostly sustainable seafood and more local produce, with plans to increase their share in future. Dishes reflect both the ministry's school food guide and the Canada Food Guide. There are options for students with special dietary needs, as well as alternating gluten-free and vegetarian meals on Thursdays for all students.

As in France, kids in the junior school are served their first course at their tables, but can come up to the kitchen for second helpings of the main course, or have as much from the salad bar as they want.

"But that's only if they finish what's on their plate," said Melissa Gaudiel, Sodexo's director of food services for St. George's, adding that the principal or vice-principal is always around to make sure plates are clean before kids go for more.

Add a dash of chef skills

St. George's and Graham Bruce follow the B.C. school curriculum, which doesn't include much food education in the elementary school years. But where the provincial curriculum falls short, outside organizations are picking up the slack.

Graham Bruce participates in several programs teaching kids both how to grow food in their school garden and how to cook it afterward. One, Project Chef, provides a cooking class for primary and elementary students. Barb Finley, a former Langley and Vancouver elementary school teacher-turned-chef created the program after experiencing the food ignorance of children and their families first hand.

"Working in so many different schools, in so many different types of settings, I saw what kids brought to school for recess and lunch," says Finley, who left teaching to work as an instructor in the Faculty of Education at UBC, before leaving to become a certified chef. "I also saw children that didn't eat properly, and the results that we see in the classroom with low energy, poor nutrition and thought that we could do better with this."

Finley put her unique skill-set and background to use by developing a cooking course for elementary school children. She honed the program at independent schools in the Lower Mainland and a culinary school in Washington state, but her goals were broader. "I wanted a program that could reach every child, and the only way you could do that is to take a program into the public elementary school system," she said.

Project Chef was piloted in a Vancouver elementary in 2007, and started wider implementation in 2008. Operating only in Vancouver district, Finley and two assistants move into Grade 4 or 5 classrooms for a week, starting before the morning bell on Monday to set up seven cooking stations in a classroom that has a sink with hot water for hand washing and a fridge nearby to store food.

Finley has five different menus for students to work with, but every program prepares a different meal every day: breakfast on one day, lunch on the next, and so on. Dishes range from a basic fruit salad, with a not-so-basic 14 fruit ingredient list, to veggie and tofu stir-fry, veggie chili with guacamole and tortilla chips, Afghan bolani and bannock.

"Through that week-long program, we weave through different food education pieces: what's a vegetable, what's a fruit; the importance of getting food [from] as close to home as possible; food safety; kitchen safety skills," Finley said. They even teach kids knife skills.

The course takes the whole morning at school, with students rotating each day through preparation, cooking food on the hot plates, setting the table and cleaning up.

"And then we dine together," adds Finley, another important lesson. "We really focus on the importance of sharing food as an emotional, social part of being. And we have table-talk topics to get conversation going."

Scraps are composted, and where possible food comes from the school's own garden.

Schools must create a curriculum around Project Chef, introducing students to different food topics before and after Finley and her assistants start cooking with the kids.

Finley tries to keep overhead low to make her program affordable. She pays her assistants, but her own time is mostly a volunteer labour of love. Schools that can afford it pay up to $1,500 to cover equipment, food and other operating costs, and help fund future programs at other schools.

Graham Bruce asked parents to pay $25 each for the month that Finley's team spent there to include every grade. It was a big expense for some parents, especially any with more than one child at the school, but principal Morden said it was worth it.

Kids "at all grade levels responded really positively, and the parents, too," she said. "Parents [were] telling me that children were making different food choices, they ate a vegetable they had never tried before, were trying healthy snacks they never made before, which the parents were very pleased with."

Parents need to push

Last spring Project Chef piloted a nine-week residency at Nootka Elementary where students from kindergarten to Grade 7 participated in food prep and cooking. Outside of the temporary kitchen, food education was integrated into as many subjects as possible. Special guests like Top Chef Canada winner Matthew Stowe and even a cow stopped by.

Finley has also piloted an after-school program that sent vulnerable children home with a bag of groceries at the end of every day. An intergenerational program, with students and residents from Tapestry Retirement Communities cooking together, is supposed to start this fall.

"Food security is an issue in some areas of Vancouver," said Finley, "but food education is something we're all seriously lacking." That's apparent from Project Chef's three-year waiting list for Vancouver schools, not counting requests that she simply can't get to from schools across B.C., Canada and the United States.

Le Billon, who supports programs like Project Chef, said we can't expect institutions like schools to change without support and pressure from parents.

"If families are on board and kids are eating all of this stuff [at home], then there will be enough support to make the change in some of our institutions that are so slow and unyielding," she said.

But there's a catch-22 to those hopes. Because kids today eat fewer meals prepared from scratch at home than their parents or grandparents did, and don't learn their way around knives and a hot stove; many kids have told Finley they're actually banned from the kitchen.

"How are we going to change what kids eat, and what kids think about food, if we don't even let them in the kitchen?" she asked.

Growing up means learning to take care of yourself away from parents and teachers. But without more instruction about healthy eating in schools, and the chance to practice cooking skills at home, today's kids risk graduating to adulthood not knowing how to properly feed either themselves or their own future children.

Next Monday: Does Canada need a nationwide school program?  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, Food

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