Tuesday, April 21, 2009

School Food

It was the best of cuisines. It was the worst of cuisines. Apologies to Dickens, but these modifications of his famous opening have traditionally told a culinary tale of two cities, Paris and London. Over the last several decades, things have changed somewhat. England has some celebrity chefs who have brought good cuisine to the kingdom. One, Jamie Oliver, has even spearheaded a campaign to transform that area famous for tasteless food: the school cafeteria. Not only was the food bad, but downright unhealthy. At least that was the case before Oliver began to exhort his compatriots in favor of healthy eating. His exhortations bore fruit, so to speak. School dining was nutritionally improved.

But stereotypes and ingrained habits die hard. Instead of being grateful, many pupils rebelled. There were boycotts of the new food. Why? Students preferred the older fare. Why eat vegetarian pizza, barbeque pork, fish, broccoli, salad, and fruit, when the memory of and taste for chicken nuggets, and fish and chips remained fresh? One British newspaper noted that demand for school lunches had dropped by 20% after the kitchen reforms were enacted.

Parents got into the act as well. Surprisingly, they intervened on the side of the “worst” cuisine. The new policy, some said, provided their children with overpriced food, “low-fat rubbish.” Wanting to be good parents, defined obviously as giving their children whatever they want, the adults circumvented the school fare by hand-delivering the high fat convenience food preferred by their offspring. Like deprived prisoners the youngsters reached through the school fence, eagerly grasping the familiar fare.

On this side of the channel, there have recently also been school-cafeteria boycotts and protests. These, though, have tended to lean in the “best of cuisines” direction. The boycotts and demonstrations were tame fare compared to the occupation of factories, keeping bosses locked in their offices, and mass street demonstrations that afflict the industrial sector in France. Typically the cafeteria-related protests were accompanied by a demand for meetings with local officials and a specific list of sought-after reforms.

Last November in nearby Pernes La Fontaine students simply refused to eat the cafeteria food. Unlike the British students, this was not an “I want my fish and chips” boycott. The problem was simply taste. Main dishes still partly frozen and unripened, hard fruits were the primary complaints. School officials explained that, because the cafeteria was undergoing renovations, food had to be brought in by an outside contractor. The boycotting students got to meet with the mayor and the town official in charge of education. Things have been quiet since then.

More recently, in Marseille, parents and students organized a protest picnic under the leadership of a group called, for some reason unknown to a foreigner like myself, “gathering of squash” (les courges associĆ©es). They too were complaining about cafeteria food. The nutritional value was okay, they admitted. The problems are (1) it tastes bad, and (2) things could even be better. Specifically, they asked for more local and organic items on the menu. Right now our children have to put up with “industrial eating” said one of the parents. For an alternative meal they had brought some pan bagnats, fruits, and salads.

Both the British and the French cases indicate the importance of habits and proper habituation if nutritious and delicious eating is going to be the rule. One commentator writing in response to the Jamie Oliver campaign said blithely “most children are able to distinguish between 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' diets from an early age.” Such a claim ignores two important dimensions. First, humans are creatures of habit, and habits have to be cultivated. They cannot be magically willed into existence, even if, rationally, someone is able to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy diets. Second, the impact of advertising on children cannot be ignored. It is this social force, rather than the family, which too often is the most important shaper of habits in children.

Jamie Oliver, representing the “best of cuisines” can only hope that the next generation of parents will succeed in instilling healthy eating habits. The “gathering of squash” group in Marseille appears to be there already. Hopefully, they will continue to succeed in keeping the “worst of cuisines” at bay.

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