lundi, avril 04, 2005

I thought when we moved to France we'd at least get to eat frogs legs with garlic butter for every meal

As Malcolm Gladwell has been pointing out to us for some time, one of the most remarkable aspects of this strange, global, instant world is the speed with which we can make a difference: "The best way to understand the dramatic transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do." This has certainly been the case in the UK over the question of school meals in the last year or so, where what started out as a bunch of parents going crazy over the slop that their children were expected to eat at midday has ended up with a commitment from the Education Secretary to pump an extra £250 million into the school meals budget to increase healthy eating in schools. All this by way of a midnight commando raid on a north London school kitchen (where a group of parents discovered stocks of illegally imported Thai chicken), a television programme featuring the preternaturally enthusiastic Jamie Oliver out to prove that it is possible to make nutritious school meals for 31p a head and a lot of headshaking by well-intentioned columnists all over the media.

The company responsible for the illegal importation of Thai chicken (it's unclear if it's actually illegal to feel children this stuff, or simply to import it) at the centre of this is called Scolarest. It's the catering arm of Compass, who make most of their money by arms dealing of some kind, but were attracted into the cheap end of catering by the promise of risk-free investment (in other words we'll always need school meals, and if you can put in the cheapest tender, you are pretty much guaranteed to get the contract). By just such a strategy Scolarest has become the biggest provider of school meals in the UK, and has a significant presence all over the developed world. (You might be amused to hear that their nearest rival for school catering contracts is Rentokil, better known as pest annihilators. No irony intended.) This means of course that they can offer schools and education authorities cheaper contracts still, since they have such significant bulk purchasing power that their costs can be slashed still further. With education providers feeling the squeeze, any strategy to keep running costs down is bound to find favour. The trouble is, this seems to be at our children's cost.

Of course I assumed that moving to France would ensure one thing - that my children (who have been being fed by Scolarest in London for the past four years) would finally discover the joys of decent school food. There are lots of fondly-held sentimental myths about France in the British mind, one of which is that the French take food so seriously that they wouldn't dream of feeding their children the kind of crap that the British habitually dole out to their poorly-nourished offspring.

Based on the brief period I have been here I have to say that that is total and utter bollocks- on two counts. One, the British have - only lately, I admit - begun to sit up and really think about issues of nutrition and kids. Country-wide, schools are beginning to appreciate the importance of providing decent freshly-made meals for children. It is unheard of - at least in the bit of London I know - to give children sugary drinks or biscuits for midmorning snacks. This is not so in France (the country which - you may just be surprised to know - has come up with Special K with chocolate chips - perhaps an imaginative take on the admittedly divinely delicious ideal breakfast food, pain au chocolat. HOWEVER Special K with chocolate chips - the ideal food to help you shed those excess pounds! - is surprisingly undelicious. (And I speak as someone who has the fondest possible memory of Golden Nuggets)). In France children seem to inhale chocolate biscuits and Nesquick as the rest of us breathe air. In a radical departure from educational norms, the mid-morning sugar fix is considered an essential part of the curriculum, and any suggestion that perhaps there might be a preferable form of sustenance is met with an elegant, uncomprehending glare. 'How dare you', the glare seems to say, 'You, an English person, deign to have an opinion on how we eat. You, citizen (nay, subject) of a country where people eat chips with vinegar!'

Imagine, if you will, my expression when I saw the catering company's van rolling up at the school gates, its brand name boldly emblazoned across its body. Scolarest. Yup, arms dealers, illegal chicken importers. Schools across the UK are breaking their contracts with Scolarest for failing to keep to their commitment to provide balanced, nutritious meals. So Scolarest, in the best historical tradition, is invading France.

It explains why my children are so hungry at the end of the school day. They pounce on me for bananas and pains au lait as though they haven't eaten since breakfast. It turns out that that's because they haven't eaten since breakfast. We pay the astonishing sum of ten euros per child per day for them to eat lunch in school (taking into account the sum which goes towards paying the staff for supervising the children that is 'just' five euros - a little over £3) which is exactly double what Scolarest charges schools in the UK - depending on the contract they charge between £1.20 and £1.45 per head for school lunches. In London we paid £135 a term for school lunches, including supervision. Here it works out at £350.

According to the headmistress I am the first parent ever to have complained about school lunches, either the astronomical cost or the poor quality of the food. I spent this morning doing Internet searches to build up a dossier of information about Scolarest and found hundreds of articles from the British press on the subject of school dinners and not a single one from the French press. Yet my children - and other parents confirm that their children say the same - tell me that the food in the cantine is simply inedible. It's certainly not fresh - in the kitchen this morning I saw huge sacks of dehydrated potato flakes to make mashed potato, industrial sized tins of peeled potatoes (I didn't even know potatoes could come in tins until this morning), enormous cans of bolognaise sauce and goulash. Nothing fresh, except for a couple of dozen apples (to feel 150 children). Dessert is either an apple or a pot of industrially produced creme caramel or flavoured and sweetened yoghourts.

Yet there is no movement either in this school or anywhere in France as far as I know to improve school meals. Nowhere is this mentioned in the press. Children are being fed processed slop of dubious provenance, and if you express concern you will be met with an unconcerned Gallic shrug. C'est comme ca.

It's been said many a time that one of the defining characteristics of France is the authoritarian nature of the state and the aquiescence of its citizens. Certainly I couldn't have come up with a better example of the French paradox (and I don't mean that stupid cliche about drinking red wine keeping you healthy. Oh, and by the way, the reason French women stay thin is because they don't eat anything. I'd be thin too if I didn't eat anything. It is not, let me repeat this, it is not because of the French diet. It is self-restraint verging on anorexia.). A nation of people who are obsessed with food, and filled with self-belief about their great culinary tradition - a nation of people who still like to take 2 hour lunch breaks in order to eat a proper meal instead of that ghastly Anglo-Saxon invention, a sandwich - a nation of gastronomes, supposedly imbued with a passion for fine food from infancy - turns out to be a nation which simply could not care less what its children are fed 250+ days of the year. With such a preparation, how they are to become tomorrow's gastronomes is anybody's guess.

British parents may have more modest claims to make of their national gastronomy. But they have a great deal more to be proud of with regard to their concern for their children's health and well-being.