Wed, 09 Mar 2005

From: AFP

European kids eat better at school than Brits

Jo Biddle, Agence French-Presse/Paris

British school dinners, once the stomach-churning, unappealing, best-to-be-avoided blight of a child's life have undergone a revolution in recent times. But has it been for the better?

Gone are the piles of soggy cabbage, grey meat slices drowning in congealed gravy, under-boiled potatoes and tapioca puddings more commonly known as "frogs eggs" which children would push despairingly around their plates.

And in have come fish and chips, pizza, fatty sausages and reconstituted, reshaped foods all aimed to appeal to young tastebuds, but containing enough saturated fats, salt and E- numbers to make even hardened nutritionists shudder.

Now British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has launched a campaign on behalf of British schoolkids to "Feed me better", an appeal which the British government appears to have heard.

"We are working to raise the bar and support schools and parents to improve school meals ahead of the introduction of comprehensive, tougher standards next year," Education Secretary Ruth Kelly said recently.

But a quick look around the continent suggests many European children fare better than their British counterparts, with menus dictated by cultural norms and with many countries already having set strict guidelines on what can be served up in schools.

Amid rising levels of obesity among children, a worrying precursor to potential health problems for tomorrow's society, school dinners have been pushed to the forefront of the debate on healthy eating.

In France, which like Britain subsidises school dinners, the education ministry dictates exactly how many grams of protein, calcium and iron each child should receive in their midday meal depending on their age.

"School meals have to meet a double demand. They must ensure the nutritional quality of the meal ... and they should also be a privileged moment of discovery and pleasure," it says on its website.

A typical French school dinner will follow closely the norms long established in French society of a three-course midday meal -- with an entree, main course and dessert.

Entrees will usually be salads of grated carrot, cucumber or chopped beetroot, followed by roast veal or fish with vegetables, with a yoghurt or fruit offered for afters.

One English four-year-old unsure what she'd eaten at her French nursery school described it as "yellow, with a smile and sometimes a little beard" -- a mystery dish which turned out to be mussels in sauce.

In other countries too, school meals imitate culinary customs. In Sweden pupils gobble up traditional dishes such as meatballs and potatoes, and on Thursdays pea soup and pancakes, although among the museli and salads, pizzas and burgers can also be found lurking.

In Austria, school menus have been drawn up with dieticians to "guarantee a balanced meal" said the education ministry, while in Portugal outside caterers have to compete according to strict criteria for contracts to supply meals.

In Germany where regional states are in charge of education, many schools do not have canteens, but those that do are increasingly offering organic meals.

While in the former Soviet Republic of Estonia, free school meals for younger children are now on offer, dishing up simple food such as pea and cabbage soup.

"It's a big achievement that practically all schools in Estonia offer hot meals," said Professor Raivo Vokk, head of the Department of Food Processing at Tallinn Technical University.

"For about 25 percent of the children, this is the only hot meal a day they can get, so it's necessary to continue with this system."

Hungarian Education Minister Balint Magyar is also studying ways of introducing a balanced diet in Hungary from September 2006, particularly hoping to get rid of all sugary drinks.

Much of the debate has focused on vending machines. France has banned such machines on school premises from September, and a similar call has been taken up in Sweden.

A school in Denmark this week went one step further and banned all sweets, biscuits, crisps and soda pops during break time.

"We decided along with the parent-teachers association to prevent pupils gulping down empty calories which are dangerous to their health," said the school's director Aren Larsen.

"This ban will have a great significance for their well-being and their behaviour because they will be forced to adopt healthy eating habits."

jkb/jmy AFPLifestyle-food-children-Europe AFP

GetAFP 2.10 -- MAR 7, 2005 08:40:47