Both good and bad eating habits are acquired from the earliest years and have a lasting effect on health. From nursery school to high school, an average of two pupils out of three, or more than 7 million children, eat school meals in France at least once a week. Improving the menus of school meals in terms of both nutritional quality and safety is therefore a priority for public health, especially as for many children, the meals eaten at school are the main source of the nutrients they need for their development. Furthermore, 14% of children between the ages of 3 and 17 are overweight, five times more than in 1960.
The Agency's work
The Agency is acutely aware of the importance of this public health issue and has undertaken several studies to assess school meals attendance and the nutritional quality of the meals served.
It first investigated the situation regarding nutrition and school meals, from nursery school to high school (1999) and found that the meals served in school canteens were nutritionally unbalanced (too rich in fats, often deficient in iron and calcium, variable concerning proteins), and that dairy products and fruit and vegetables were often absent, in parallel with a constant rise in the prevalence of child obesity in France. At that time the Agency recommended that the Circular entitled "School health and pupil nutrition", dating from 1971, be updated. In 2001, the Circular of 25 June 2001 on the composition of meals served in school canteens and food safety was published.
The Agency then carried out a national study of school meals in order to assess the application of the Circular of 2001 in middle and high schools. In the course of the school year 2005/2006, 785 public secondary schools were questioned on how their meals services were organised and how the Circular was applied, and asked to send in sequences of 20 consecutive menus.
The individual and national studies on food consumption, INCA1 (1998/99) and INCA2 (2006/2007), carried out on representative samples of the French population, provided information about attendance at school meals, the associated factors and their impact on the overall diet of children and enabled a comparison between the consumption and nutritional intake of lunches eaten at the canteen and those eaten at home.
School meals in figures
Who eats in canteens?
According to the second French Individual and National Study on Food Consumption (INCA2) carried out by the Agency in 2006-2007, 63% of nursery and primary schoolchildren and 69% of middle and high school children eat lunch at the school canteen at least once a week. Respectively 50% and 64% of them eat lunch at school at least three times a week.
Analysis of the results of the INCA2 study shows that attendance at school canteens varies by region and diminishes as population density increases. It also increases in proportion to the age of the children and the level of their parents' education. In nursery schools and primary schools, it is also more common for children from single-parent families or families in which the mother works. In middle and high schools, attendance at canteens increases for higher income-bracket households and when homes are farther away from schools.
Nursery and primary schoolchildren who eat school meals have a more varied diet but also eat morning snacks more frequently. Middle and high school students attending school canteens have a more structured daily diet and miss breakfast less often. At all ages, children who eat at the canteen spend less time in front of the television or the computer.
How much time does a student spend at the canteen?
Middle and high school students eat lunch in 16 to 30 minutes in more than three schools out of four. Only 8% of National Education establishments and 5% of agricultural establishments follow the Circular of 25 June 2001, which recommends at least 30 minutes for lunch in the canteen.
What facilities are available for washing hands?
Ninety percent of middle and high schools have a wash basin near the canteen. However, the survey recorded that there is on average only one tap for 150 pupils in national education establishments.
Furthermore, almost one in ten establishments still use bar soap and one in five establishments use cloth towels for drying hands, which can lead to germs being transferred between children. Lastly, almost 20% of national education establishments do not provide either soap or drying facilities.
Do canteens offer balanced meals?
According to a study carried out in 2005-06, there is room for improvement in the nutritional balance of meals served in middle and high school canteens. On a positive note, products with a high fat content are limited in starters and desserts, and fruits and vegetables and starchy foods are proposed regularly. However an effort still has to be made to improve the quality of main dishes as not enough fish or red meat is offered and too many dishes have a high fat content. The calcium content of dairy products should also be improved. And while vegetables are well accounted for in canteens in mainland France, are they actually eaten? No one can be sure about this as ultimately it is up to the pupils to make the right choice.
In order to help them, efforts have been made to promote balanced diets. These vary however from one school to another: it all depends on whether cooks make their own menus or are advised by a dietician or nutritionist, on whether the school has committed itself to providing a balanced diet and on whether the person responsible for purchasing food has had training in nutrition or not.
Twenty percent of middle and high schools provide pupils with information on nutrition during meals. Furthermore, 31% of national education establishments and 53% of agricultural high schools hold information sessions on nutrition at least once every three months.
The INCA2 study showed differences in the foods consumed depending on whether children ate at school or at home. School lunches contain more bread, fresh fruit and compotes, fish but also mixed dishes and biscuits and sweet pastries, while lunches eaten at home include more sodas, fruit juice and sweets. In addition, nursery and primary schoolchildren eat more vegetables, cheese, soups and sauces at the canteen, and more delicatessen meats, sandwiches and hamburgers at home. For middle and high-school students, canteen lunches include more yoghurts and fromage blanc as well as pizzas and savoury pastries, and less meat than at home.
To further improve the nutritional quality of school meals, in 2007 the Agency recommended:
- encouraging local authorities to pool financial and human resources and recruit nutritionists to help any establishments requesting assistance,or to make grouped purchases of raw materials that meet contractual nutritional specifications;
- improving the training of personnel regarding nutrition and balanced diets;
- developing and distributing ready-to-use tools to help establishments draw up menus, make provision for pupils following special diets or organise events about balanced nutrition;
- issue recommendations on nutrition at the same regulatory level as health recommendations, as proposed by the Second National Health and Nutrition Programme (PNNS 2).
This last point was taken into account by the Modernisation of Agriculture Act of 27 July 2010 which obliged school and university canteens to adhere to regulations concerning nutritional quality.
This measure was echoed in the National Diet Programme (PNA), launched in September 2010 by the Minister of Food, which among other aims is intended to reconcile enjoyment, balanced meals and school canteens. It also encourages providing appropriate training for the managers of school canteens. Following on from the Modernisation of Agriculture Act, a Decree and an Order were published in October 2011 obliging school canteens to adhere to the rules for the composition of school meals, drawn up by the study group on catering and nutrition contracts (GEMRCN) and last updated in October 2011.
The GEMRCN draws up rules concerning nutrition quality in school and university canteens, based largely on the Agency's Opinions.