In France this month, a new protest movement rose up, ready to turn the full force of their anger on the authorities.
It wasn’t against changes to the state pension scheme. It wasn’t against President Macron’s labour reforms. No, the angry group is campaigning against the quality of food in their local school canteens, where the youngsters are served rare
roast beef, lentils and tartiflette.
Called “Les Enfants du 18e Mangent Ca”, which roughly translates as “the children of the 18th eat this”, the group of parents, from the 18th arrondissement of Paris, have highlighted the problems they have with the food their youngsters are being served at school.
They have photographed plates of school meals and uploaded them to Facebook on a daily basis, sparking derogatory comments from parents of children in the district.
The concept is not unlike that of Scottish school girl Martha Payne from Lochgilphead, Argyll, who hit the headlines six years ago after posting daily pictures of her school lunches in a bid to highlight the poor quality of the food she was served at school.
While I’m sure there is no doubt that the French school meals could be improved upon – the parents have investigated the provenence of the food and found that the vast majority of the meals are cooked two or three days in advance and heated up to serve – the comparison with what youngsters are served in Scotland is laughable.
An investigation I carried out into Scottish school meals a couple of years ago did not offer a positive picture – and so far, little has changed, with the Scottish Government’s new guidelines on the issue still to be released, having been delayed since last year.
According to nutritionists I consulted as part of the probe into sample menus and recipes for meals from the 32 Scottish council areas, while Scottish school meals generally technically meet Scottish Government weekly guidelines of salt, sugar and saturated fats, they contain very little “good stuff”. Fresh vegetables, if present at all, are boiled away to practically nothing, while there is little in the way of lean proteins or vitamin-rich components.
From the point of view of a parent whose child has started school fairly recently, they do not even seem to be appetising. Foods which would be my daughter’s favourite elsewhere are shunned in the school meals. Carrots, which she eats like a rabbit at home, are apparently, at school, “slippery, slimy and hard at the same time”. I wouldn’t eat them either, with a description like that. The potatoes taste “funny and salty”, which makes me wonder if what they are served is actually instant, powdered mash.
The parents of the French children of the 18th arrondissement, however, seem to have higher standards. They have spent three months compiling information on their children’s meals, visiting the central kitchen and finding out exactly from where the food is sourced.
The “menu” posted on the campaign page on 19 January, which was met with derision from parents in the comments section, was compiled of an iceberg lettuce salad with croutons and mustard vinaigrette, served with “tartiflette” – potatoes in a cheese and bacon sauce – and home-made cinnamon apple puree for dessert. The picture was hashtagged #plusdebiopournosenfants – “more organic for our children”.
Apart from the lack of organic ingredients, the portion sizes seemed to be the main bugbear, with one parent writing “the portions are super light, aren’t they? I understand why my son eats at night when he comes home!” Another added “portions for sparrows?”
Another meal a few days earlier, a plate of lentils with chicken legs, served with green salad and red beetroot in a mustard dressing, sparked complaints that the meat came from battery farms.
One father wrote: “Again, battery chicken! And vegetables which would make sick the best of vegetarians. Frankly, so many parents go to so much trouble to feed our children [well] in our home, and all this work is ruined in public schools by the food industry, which interferes with the health of our little ones.”
Another sample meal posted by parents showed two thick slices of cold, rare roast beef on a bed of pureed potato and a cold cocktail sauce, with a slice of French cheese for afters.
Admittedly, it is difficult to tell from a picture, but the French parents’ issues seem to be chiefly related to the provenance of the food, the quality of the meat, how much it is processed and whether it will fill up their children – the French usually eat their main meal at lunchtime, so hungry youngsters returning from school at the end of the day are not a welcome sight. From a distance, at least, the actual food itself does not seem to be too bad, compared to Scottish school meals, at least.
What is clearly far better is the menu. Scottish school menus are still heavy on the pizza, burger and sausage side of things, giving youngsters the impression that these are everyday foods, rather than occasional treats. At least in France, they get proper, grown-up food to eat, even if the presentation and quality is not quite what their parents would hope for.
However, in both countries, mass production is the problem. The 18th arrondissement is equipped with only one central kitchen to produce 14,000 daily meals, outsourced to a private contractor. Similarly, Edinburgh council’s meals are provided by three private companies: Edinburgh Catering Services, Amey and Mitie. Other local authorities have a similar set up. While some schools have their own cooks, who do a limited amount of organisation on site, most of the meals are shipped in from central kitchens and reheated.
What is very different to the situation in France is what we do about it here. Despite flurries of activity in trying to get the system changed, such as Jamie Oliver’s campaign against the turkey twizzler a few years ago, little has really been achieved.
We would do well to follow the Paris parents’ example. If we don’t fight for higher standards, we will not get them. It may only be one bad meal a day to many families – but for some children, it could be the only chance of a decent meal they get.