1. The French take a positive rather than punitive approach to food—teaching their children to love healthy food. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t picky eaters in France (of course there are!). But many pass through the ‘picky eater’ phase more quickly, and so are better equipped to make the right food choices—about how much as well as what to eat. Note: some research, like that of Brian Wansink at Cornell, suggests that providing children with extensive nutritional education is not sufficient to enable them to consistently make healthy food choices. Nutritional education is important, but the French ‘pleasure principle’ is also useful: French kids (and adults) aren’t learning to eat healthy food because they have to, but rather because they enjoy it, and because it’s part of a routine they’ve followed since early childhood.
2. The French have taken a comprehensive approach to preventing child obesity—including many initiatives that medical professionals have long been demanding in the US. And this has measurable effects. Many of the policies describe above have only been in place over the past decade—initiated when the French government became alarmed by an increase in child obesity rates (albeit low by international standards). Since then, child obesity rates have leveled off.
3. The French approach to food education is not solely top-down or government-led. French school lunches, for example, are entirely funded by local municipalities (there are no national subsidies, unlike in the US). Social solidarity within communities enables this to work; for example, income-related cross-subsidies between families ensure that all kids have access to the same healthy meals—so that middle-class families in Paris pay $3 per meal, but lower-income families pay only 20 cents. Policy change (revising SNAP, the Farm Bill, and the National School Lunch Program) is important – but so is bottom-up change, teaching kids (and their parents) to demand healthy food, and creating the conditions in which they can organize themselves to provide it. Luckily, we have great examples here at home: like Chef Kate’s ‘Cook for America’, which shows schools how to save money and improve lunches by scratch cooking ‘real food’ meals.
4. Finally, while healthy eating starts in the home, food education should also be part of the school curriculum. Food can be integrated into everything from science to social studies. ‘Taste Training’ lessons start in kindergarten in France, and culminate in Grade 4 with a ‘Tasting Week’ (complete with certificate!). There are lots of great local initiatives across North America (including Project Chef in Vancouver, where we now live), but these are ad hoc and often under-funded. What about supporting and replicating these initiatives, or celebrating Food Day in American schools?
For more, visit New York in French’s article by Karen Le Billon.