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Growing Up Gourmet: School Food That's Worlds Away

Friday, February 20, 2009

School Food That's Worlds Away

Oh to be a kid in Paris. To play along the banks of the Sienne and wander in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. To ride the carousel at the Jardin du Luxembourg and play peek-a-boo in the narrow streets of the Marais.

And to eat cauliflower gratin, braised lamb with rosemary, and stinky soft cheese. For lunch. At preschool. As reported Monday on NPR, this is precisely the kind of menu served at the 270 public day-care centers throughout the city. Along with homemade applesauce, local and organic produce, and even tomato garnishes in the shape of a rose.

Sign me up. These kiddos even get an afternoon nap. It would be erroneous to pretend our country's culinary heritage is even remotely in line with the French. And yet I can't help wish our national conversation was about feeding school children asparagus instead of the newly developed peanut butter recall widget:

FDA Product Recall List

FDA Salmonella Typhimurium Outbreak 2009. Flash Player 9 is required.

Was it by coincidence that just days after NPR's story about school-foodie paradise, the New York Times today featured an op-ed by Alice Waters? She implores Washington to do away with the National School Lunch Program, the inefficient and unhealthy emphasis on government commodities, and the school food that hardly constitutes food at all. Calling our current lunch program a "junk food distribution system", Ms. Waters suggests a complete overhaul that would cost about $5/child for wholesome, nutritious, and freshly-cooked school food. (A bit more than the $2-$3 per child cost as noted by NPR in this story, and one that appeared in July, where the French chef serves 800 high-schoolers ingredients from within just 30 miles of the school in Salon de Provence.)

A tasty proposal that sounds tres bien to me.
Meanwhile, gourmet food isn't the only thing the French are serving up. Cookbook author Deborah Madison spent some time in France's lunchrooms, observing not only what was on the menu, but how it was dished up: in a relaxed, convivial atmosphere, with a 2 hour lunch and exercise period, on real plates with real silverware, and in a comfortable, nurturing, colorful "cafeteria". Her report is available here, at

Since I work in schools teaching cooking to children, and see the enthusiasm and curiosity parents, kids, and educators have displayed for our exploratory culinary curriculum, I think there is a possibility that our school cafeterias may begin to look more like France's. But without the kind of sweeping change Ms. Water's demands, with cooperation, funding, and support from bureaucratic entities like the Departments of Agriculture and Education, as well as a commitment by local school districts, I worry it won't happen any time soon. And in California, where public schools are again taking a multi-billion dollar budget cut, I worry even the most well intentioned schools will struggle to serve up something good.
Mr. Kass, head to the kitchen. It's time to get to work.

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