As an antidote to the American hostility toward school lunch Ed Bruske recently ran across in the Washington Post‘s comment section, here’s a wonderful CBS News report about the French school lunch program.

What’s notable about it isn’t the high-tech food safety practices (they keep samples of all food for two months in case of outbreaks!) or the menus themselves (five-course meals every day!) or the secret to getting kids to eat their veggies (deep fry them!), but rather the fact that the program is entirely uncontroversial. It makes you realize that the fight over school lunch in this country isn’t so much about feeding kids as it is about the proper role of government, attitudes toward race and class, and the studied indifference Americans seem to have about food.

The French program is also “universal”: virtually all students eat the school-provided lunch, and families pay “what they can afford.” I would argue that it’s the universal nature of the benefit that keeps the quality high, since everyone has a stake in the program: it’s not perceived as just serving the poor or — even worse it seems, if Post comments are representative — minorities.

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Something in the French segment that stood out for me was the bit on Dominique Valadier, the former restaurant-chef-turned-school-lunch-cook, who works for a school system in the south of France, and serves what is, by any standard, gourmet food. Watching the person in charge of feeding school kids shopping the wholesale markets looking for the best ingredients, going on about using local products, and making everything by hand is nothing short of amazing. And unlike the Paris schools that spend a much-quoted $5 per meal, Valadier works his magic for about $2.50 per meal — not so far off what’s spent per meal in the U.S. Michelle Obama has been pushing restaurant chefs here in the U.S. to get involved in school lunch — but this takes it to a whole other level.

While France clearly represents the gold standard for school lunch programs, it’s unclear whether we can manage even the mildest reforms here at home. Yet it’s still worth watching this report if only to remember that there is nothing “natural,” “rational,” or “inevitable” about our school lunch program. We made it the way it is. And just as the French school lunch program says something important about the French national character, so too does our failing system say something important about ours.

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