In the summer of 2013, the French Ministry of Agriculture and New York City Department of Education’ SchoolFood entered into a collaborative partnership with the goal of sharing valuable ideas, data and practices regarding food education. The main focus of this partnership is to share food policy initiatives aimed at educating children about food and preventing childhood obesity. A few months prior to this international collaboration, New York’s SchoolFood announced the founding of the Urban SchoolFood Alliance (USFA) that unified America’s six largest school districts: New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Orlando and Dallas, synchronizing their priorities for school nutrition in order to achieve a positive and sustainable national impact. One year later on October 13th, 2014, New York and its Urban SchoolFood Alliance arrived in Paris at the invitation of the French Ministry of Agriculture to take a three-day in depth look at the way France addresses food education.
The trip kicked off with a welcoming reception at the French Ministry of Agriculture. The American delegation consisted of representatives from New York, Chicago, Miami and Dallas met with Patrick Dehaumont, head of the Ministry’s General Directorate for Food (DGAL), the branch responsible for food policy. The DGAL presented the French National Program for Food (PNA) to the delegation, thereby providing a global explanation of French objectives serving as the framework for the subsequent programs to be showcased over the visit. The USFA then shared the driving force behind their alliance in the U.S., highlighting points of common interest and room for improvement.
The afternoon was spent at Interfel, the Inter-Branch Association of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Industry, where the French program “Fruit at Recess” was introduced to the Americans. The initiative, proposed to the EU by France, was launched in 2008 as a distribution program in elementary schools aimed at improving the way good long-term food habits are instilled in school children. Participation is optional and on a school-by-school basis, but those who choose to partake in the program must supplement the fruits and veggies with a standardized curriculum. The subsequent presentation of ‘Fresh Attitude Week’ – another Interfel promotional initiative – particularly captured the attention of the USFA, who expressed interest in participating with France and Italy this coming year from across the Atlantic.
“Les Classes du Goût,” or the ‘Taste Education’ program was the theme of day two. In the morning, the USFA learned about the details of the program at the Ministry of Agriculture. Later that afternoon, the delegation travelled to an elementary school in the town of Roissy-en-Brie to witness and participate in live Taste Education classes.
‘Taste Education’ was instituted in 2011 and was later expanded nationally with the goal of helping children to better articulate the sensations they experience when tasting food and to encourage a desire to discover new types of food. The driving thought is that a deeper appreciation for variety and taste of food in children will translate to well-balanced, healthier adult eating habits. The program has two stages: training of the teachers and teaching of the lessons. Teacher training is done on a volunteer basis by elementary school teachers and consists of a full day of formation by ministry-qualified taste consultants, after the completion of which the volunteer receives official certification as a taste educator. Back in the classroom, the taste educators have the entire school year to complete eight 90-minute lessons covering everything from sensory awareness to French food heritage and labeling. The lessons are specially designed to be incorporated into elementary school curricula, linking different subjects with the individual Taste Education lessons to make the program as integrative as possible.
The third and final day of the visit was spent in the northern région of Picardy, where the spotlight was on the middle school program ‘Have fun at the cafeteria.’ ‘Have fun at the cafeteria’ is an initiative seeking to renew the appeal of school cafeterias by capitalizing on a target food supply (local, terroir products, etc…) while ensuring the pleasure of eating nutritionally-balanced and quality meals. This comprehensive program brings together local producers, cooks, students and school administrators and highlights the various aspects surrounding and leading up to the act of eating. ‘Have fun at the cafeteria,’ and its emphasis on nutrition, taste, social time and food rituals in the cafeteria restores a sense of connectivity between the student, their food, its producers and cooks.
The program was piloted in the Picardy région before being implemented nationally. As such, the delegation traveled to two of its départements – Somme and Oise – to learn from ‘Have fun at the cafeteria’s’ most experienced and knowledgeable directors. Around one hundred stakeholders – from departmental council members to program graduates – convened to share their experiences and impressions of the program with the American delegation. After a series of presentations, activity demonstrations, and a tasting of specialty products from Picardy, the group traveled to Philéas Lebesque Middle School in Marseille-en-Beauvasis – a town in the Oise department – to get a more intimate look at how the program has affected a school and its community. Here, the USFA had the opportunity to discuss the program’s efficacy with parents, students, school administrators and kitchen staff as well as share their challenges and successes in the U.S.
The visit was a big success; both the Urban SchoolFood Alliance and the French Ministry of Agriculture identified room for improvement and took home a renewed enthusiasm for the future of food education and nutrition in France in the Unites States. “We have really enjoyed learning [about] the French way of [emphasizing] taste and taking pleasure in food and we want to bring our expertise in managing very large nutrition programs in urban schools [to this partnership],” said Penny Parham, USFA delegation member and Director of Nutrition for Miami Dade County Public Schools. The Alliance plans to promote this notion of enjoyment of quality food to their children by modifying their programs. On the other hand, the French Ministry of Agriculture was particularly intrigued by the USFA’s breakfast programs in their schools, a service that is not yet provided in France. Both parties ended the trip with a sense of newfound inspiration and excitement that promises to strengthen their unique partnership.