According to a consumers' report, the nutritional quality of meals in nursery and primary schools has plummeted because of cost-cutting by local authorities. And, it says, the food on offer is often so unappetising that many children refuse to eat it.
The survey, published in Que Choisir, the consumer magazine, claims that the cut-price school lunches contain too much fat and sugar and too little iron, calcium and fibre.
While the ingredients for a well-balanced menu - such as tomato salad, roast veal with mashed potatoes containing milk, Emmental cheese and stewed apples - might cost Pounds 1 a head, it says, many budgets allocate only 71p.
This was only enough for a meal consisting of canned vegetable salad in mayonnaise, reconstituted veal coated in breadcrumbs, fried and served with chips, processed cheese spread containing weight for weight only one-quarter the calcium in the Emmental.
Cheap fruit, such as Golden Delicious apples kept in store for year-round availability, are substituted for seasonal fruit. The report quotes letters from parents worried that their children are skipping lunch because they will not eat it.
They complain of heavy, indigestible, products such as fritters, mince and rissoles, and of cold chips, dried-up pasta and inedible fish.
According to a local petition organised by a parents' union in Vanves, south of Paris, and signed by 800 families: "Three-quarters of the meat is rejected by the children. The insipid, the colourless, the shapeless, the flabby, the fat, the gelatinous, the withered and the unidentifiable dominate."
The problem, says the survey, stems from the local authorities that have assumed responsibility for running elementary-school canteens. They have been more concerned with saving money than employing dieticians.
Parents usually contribute between 40 and 75 per cent of the total cost of school dinners, which vary between Pounds 2.50 and Pounds 4.80 depending on cooking arrangements. The head of an outside company providing school meals was quoted as saying that the cost-cutting trend affected nearly half the authorities he dealt with.
The only official guidance to the content of school meals is in a 1971 circular, not legally enforceable, which recommends the menu should include raw vegetables or fruit, animal protein includinga dairy product and cooked vegetables twice a week.
Experts recommend that a minimum cost of Pounds 1 should be fixed for ingredients, and more precise instructions on nutritional quality should be laid down.
A model authority cited in the report is Bordeaux, whose dietician annually monitors specifications for suppliers, detailing the exact composition of each product, analyses and tastes the food and visits the schools to check that the pupils are eating properly.