French Paradox in the School Cafeteria?

May 14, 2007

Today we have a guest entry by Shanny Peer, Director of
Policy Programs at the French-American Foundation.

Physicians, researchers, and calorie-conscious American tourists have noticed for years that French people enjoy delicious, rich food over leisurely four-course meals without ever seeming to gain weight. French men and women, despite having a diet that is relatively high in saturated fats – think about all those croissants and cream-filled pastries – enjoy less coronary heart disease, lower rates of obesity, and longer lives than Americans. One theory for this “French paradox” is that drinking red wine may limit the incidence of coronary disease for those on a relatively fat-rich diet. (Apparently, this news caused red wine consumption to increase noticeably in the United States.)

Recent books such as French Women Don’t Get Fat have turned the French paradox and slimmer French physiques into self-help advice for dieting Americans.  Guess what?  French children don’t get fat either.  And it’s not because they’re drinking red wine with their school lunch. 

Okay, admittedly, this is an exaggeration.  Some French children are in fact overweight – currently about 4 percent of French children aged 7 to 11 are obese, and another 14 percent are overweight.  Obesity rates and concerns about them are rising in France as they are in every other country in Europe and North America.

But Americans still tip the scale heavily. Obesity rates are rising much more rapidly in the U.S., which has experienced the largest increase of childhood obesity in recent decades – up 60 percent – while France has experienced one of the smallest increases, of 28 percent. (For a brief historical perspective on the French response to concerns about child obesity dating back to the 1930s, when French child health educators began urging mothers to adopt the healthy norms that still prevail today, see Greg Critser’s Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, pages 36-37.)    

Does the French approach to school food help keep obesity and related health problems in check among school-age children in France?  Are there other important public policy measures that complement the efforts of schools in fighting back against child obesity? The French-American Foundation would like to find out, and that’s why I participated in the recent International Exchange Forum on Children, Obesity, Food Choice and the Environment, along with Jean Saunders, HSC’s director of school wellness.

We are currently developing a new policy program comparing French and American approaches to school food and their potential impact on child obesity and child wellness. As with earlier policy programs at the French-American Foundation, focused on early childhood education, maternal and child health, and child care, we hope this program can have an impact on public debates and policy making in the U.S. by informing American policy makers, opinion leaders, and other stakeholders about potential lessons the French approach may offer to the U.S. 

This exploration is not about copying the French, or lifting lessons directly from their books. Rather, it is about examining the differences in our countries’ approaches to see how we might learn from each other.

During the exchange forum, our visits to several school cafeterias in France highlighted some of the important differences in approach.  French children drink only water with their meals instead of the flavored milk (often whole milk) offered in many American school cafeterias. School meals are typically prepared in well-equipped kitchens by trained chefs who use mostly fresh produce and many other fresh ingredients, locally procured when possible, to prepare real food from scratch.

Although some American schools are trying to move in that direction, their efforts are hampered by many things, including under-equipped kitchens, limited resources for staff development, insufficient funding, and poor quality ingredients or prepared foods.

French schools spend more money per child – nearly three times as much – to pay for higher quality meals, with costs shared by parents and local governments. 

Whereas many American schools cater to the limited (and often unhealthy) preferences considered normal for American children, offering the same fare of chicken nuggets, pizza, hamburgers, and French fries featured on children’s menus in restaurants across the country, French school chefs prepare a wide variety of foods, including appetizers such as radicchio or fresh beets, mache or asparagus with vinaigrette – and they view expanding children’s palettes as an important part of their job.  And all the children who stay at school during the two-hour period allotted to a leisurely lunch and recess eat the same school lunch together – no lunch boxes come in from home.

One last important difference: France banned vending machines from schools by law three years ago, and we saw no evidence of “competitive foods” in the schools we visited. 

What might these differences mean for American school lunches? Would we want to examine ways that variations on these practices might be integrated into our schools? If so, what would an “American version” of the practice look like?

None of us – in France or in the U.S. – knows the perfect answer to the question of how we should address childhood obesity. But isn’t that good food for thought?

Plus: Jean Saunders, HSC’s director of school wellness, will lead two Lunch & Learn discussions addressing International Perspectives on Childhood Obesity and School Food. The first will be held on Wed. May 16th in Lombard and the second on Thurs. May 24 in Chicago. For details, click here or call 312-419-1810.