Thursday, July 12, 2012

Food and French Kids

I first read about the special diet of French school children when I read Peter Mayle's Toujours Provence (1991). Mayle spends a chapter describing how he experiences French dining options at various price points along with Regis, whom he refers to as the "Athlete Gourmet". Regis has a small daughter named Mathilde and

"at the village school attended by his five-year-old daughter, the menu for the week is posted on the notice board, so that the meals won't be duplicated at home,and each day is a three-course lunch. Yesterday, for instance, little Mathilde had eaten a celery salad with a slice of ham and cheese quiche, riz au saucisses, and baked bananas. Voila! The palate continues its education. As so it is inevitable that the French adult has a better appreciation of food, and higher expectations than the English adult." (pp. 165-6).

At the time that I read this, I assumed that Regis simply lived in an affluent village in Provence, possibly one that was reaping a lot of money from tourists. I myself grew up in a somewhat affluent village of 50,000 people on Long Island, which at that time spent a large amount of money on its very good school system. We had an excellent art and music program, although I do not have fond memories of the cafeteria food. I simply assumed that Regis' village opted to spend more money on food, and possibly less on cultural enrichment programs.

I was fascinated to read, twenty years later, that what Mayle is describing is standard in French creches and preschools. Druckerman 's daughter Bean is her first child to go to a creche. Druckerman writes:

"What really wins us over about the creche is the food, or, more specifically, the dining experience. Each Monday, the creche posts its menu for the week on a giant white board near the entrance.

I sometimes photograph these menus and e-mail them to my mother. They read like the chalkboard menus at Parisian brasseries. Lunch is served in four courses: a cold vegetable starter, a main dish with a side of grains or cooked vegetables, a different cheese each day, and a dessert of fresh fruit or fruit puree. There's a slightly modified version for each age group; the youngest kids mostly have the same foods, but pureed...

An in-house cook at each creche prepares lunch from scratch each day. A truck arrives several times a week with seasonal, fresh, sometimes even organic ingredients. Aside from the occasional can of tomato paste, nothing is processed or precooked. A few vegetables are frozen, but never precooked." (pp. 111-2).

The kids are deliberately exposed to as many different kinds of foods as possible so that they can become flexible eaters. If a child doesn't like a food, s/he is asked to at least try it, and then the food is re-introduced in different forms over the next few weeks. An added bonus is that during the week, the child's main meal is school lunch so that parents can serve a lighter, easier-to prepare meal, such as soup, for dinner. Parents don't have to cook large, involved meals until the weekend.

Druckerman never mentions what happens to children with allergies to peanuts, gluten, sugar, etc. Her own children are Jewish, and she spends two pages discussing how her daughter, who does not eat pork at home and is on a no-pork list at school, is sometimes served pork at lunch; she knows this because Bean will come home and tell her that she ate pork (pp. 164-5). Druckerman does not say why this happens - was it just a mistake, did Bean insist on trying pork, are the caregivers deliberately ignoring religious tabboos in order to make the kids as French as possible (most French are still officially Catholic so eat pork)?

What happens to the children who have been diagnosed with ADHD, for example, and whose parents are trying through diet to mitigate the condition? Are these children in special creches and preschools? Does France just have a statistically lower level of children who need special diets for health, religious, or ethical reasons?

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