It’s September, and that means back to school. For most students in France and the United States, returning to school means readopting the cafeteria diet. For schoolchildren at Langouët elementary school in Brittany (northwest of France), their school-time diet is organic only. That’s right, this elementary school in the commune of Ille-et-Vilaine prepares all of its meals with 100% organic ingredients, and has been doing so affordably for ten years.
Langouët made the decision to change its school’s food program well before organic foods had their own grocery stores. Langouët has been serving nothing but organic ingredients since the 5th of January, 2004. “The kids came back from vacation and just like that, everything was organic,” recalls Daniel Cueff, the town mayor since 1999. “At that time organic food was off-putting. People equated organic eating with vegetarianism, which for many was synonymous with unsatisfying and bad tasting food.” What more, the Economic Interest Group for organic eating, Manger bio 35 (EIG Manger bio 35), was only just beginning to improve national access to organic foods at this time, just four years after its inception in 2000.
The school opted to take the risk, which was not without its sacrifices. They lost their longtime cook in the conversion, who retired in the midst of the process out of disagreement with the initiative. “…We hired another trained cook who was aware of and willing to take on the move to organic. We also hired another person to help with prep work…,” said Cueff.
Such a drastic change in food service with limited organic resources incurred higher costs, which initially worried the school’s administration. However the change brought about unforeseen benefits over the years. In 10 years, enrollment in the cafeteria program rose from 35 to 80 with the student population remaining equal. But the “big surprise” to Cueff was the overall decrease in price per meal. “Eleven years ago with our traditional cuisine the price per meal was 5 euros ($ 6.50) and ten years later we are at the same price,” said Cueff. When accounting for inflation this is undoubtedly the more economic option.
Mr. Cueff attributes these savings to a more precise and overall reduction in quantity of ingredients purchased. “Organic meats lose less substance when cooking than do conventional meats and organic bread is more filling.” Langouët may have been the first to risk the opportunity cost, but others soon caught on. In 2014, EIG Manger bio 35 CEO Sophie Jeannin reported having doubled the amount of producers and having increased revenue seven fold since 2004.
Langouët’s 100% organic school food program reflects a high standard to which more and more parents aspire in France. According to the national agency for the development and the promotion of organic farming, Agence Bio, 68% of French parents are interested organic products being offered in school cafeterias.