'Jamie who?' ask the French

29th September 2006 at 01:00
English school meals are a hot potato, so how do our standards for pupils' food compare with those around the world?

Pommes de terre et betteraves cuites en salade

Filet de merlu blanc frit

Epinards ... la creme

Gouda

Nectarine.

It's only Monday and this is not the mouth-watering menu of a chi-chi French bistro, but the school dinners prepared in the canteens of the Charente, central western region of France.

The quality gap between school meals either side of the Channel may be closing following Jamie Oliver's highly publicised campaign to banish processed, reheated junk food from school canteens, but it may be a while before all English pupils can look forward to the same kind of lunch as their counterparts in the Charente.

France is not on the list of 13 countries whose television companies bought Mr Oliver's original TV series, which was screened here last year and swiftly followed by the Government's announcement of pound;280 million for better ingredients, training and equipment for school cooks. The countries that did sign up included Canada and Australia, where worries over the prevalenceof lard-laden junk food in canteens echo fears here, but also Sweden, where fresh, free school dinners have been laid on for 50 years.

So how do school dinners compare around the world? The French menu demonstrates a predictable devotion to fresh-cooked lunches and is correspondingly expensive, costing on average between pound;3.50 and pound;4.50 per meal, about half of which is subsidised.

By comparison, English school meals come in at under pound;2, paid by the pupil. But there are changes. Many school dinner lists are beginning to resemble the French menu, notably those in Greenwich, the London borough where Mr Oliver based his campaign.

Only nursery and primary children tend to stay for lunch in Italy. Meals have a poor reputation because few schools have their own kitchens, so food is supplied by contractors and dished up lukewarm. Dinners cost about Pounds 2.10.

Dieticians observing government nutritional guidelines draw up weekly menus, featuring regulars such as pumpkin soup, rice and pasta with tomato sauce.

Standards improve in Italian private schools, which have their own kitchens. Ciara Guazzieri, whose six-year-old twins have just started at a private primary school in Venice after attending a state nursery school, said: "This week they've had cordon bleu cutlets, sausages and fried prawns, which was a completely new taste for them. They had mixed feelings about the prawns."

In Spain, children are issued with a menu for the next few weeks, which not only breaks down each meal into its calorific value, fat, carbohydrate, protein and vitamin content, but also suggests what parents need to feed them at home to ensure a balanced diet each day. Typical meals include omelettes, salads, chickpea stew and fish fillets, priced on average at pound;2.75 a day, payable by parents, and rising to a maximum capped charge of pound;3.10.

Stew rules in Finnish school canteens, whether pasta, ham and potato, cabbage, root vegetable or beetroot. Sausage soup, barley porridge and spinach pancakes are also popular.

In Ukraine poverty and corruption mean standards vary widely between regions. While some children get little more than stodge, others receive a three-course lunch and a fruit drink. Typically, the starter is borscht, a traditional soup of beetroot, vegetables and meat. The main course is mince fried in breadcrumbs or sausage with mashed potato or buckwheat, and pudding is biscuits, pancakes or syrki (chocolate-covered cream cheese).

Pupils pay about pound;1 a week.

The menu of Thai school meals bring restaurants to mind again. Common dishes include green curry with pork and cucumber with egg, lemongrass soup with chicken, stir-fried bamboo and Chinese sausage, and orange curry with omelette. Japanese children lunch on rice, fish, pickled salad, tofu and vegetable soup, and fruit, all washed down with milk. Other regulars include miso soup, stewed devil's tongue with lotus root and frozen yoghurt.

In countries where malnutrition is a problem, school dinners play a major role. India's elementary school midday meal scheme was launched in 1995 as an incentive to parents to send their children to lessons. It meant that poor families had one less meal to provide and that children received a basic education. With food in their bellies, they were also likely to achieve more.

The state provides 100 grams of wheat or rice a day per pupil, to which pulses, soya beans or seasonal vegetables are added to create a one-pot meal acceptable to children of all religions. Some regions also offer non-vegetarian options and pupils bring their own dishes and utensils.

In Brazil, the school lunch service - the world's largest, according to the United Nations - ensures that 37 million children get what is often their only proper meal of the day. It forms a key part of the government's Fomezero (Zero Hunger) campaign.

School canteens in the United States have come under increasing scrutiny.

Some sell commercial fast food, others prepare dishes that students find so unappealing they go to the nearest takeaway instead.

The national school lunch programme is run by the Department of Agriculture and feeds 28 million pupils in 98,000 schools. Meals must conform to nutritional guidelines. As in English canteens, the problem is one of choice - most pupils choose fatty, doughy, cheese-covered snacks over salads. Youngsters in Beavercreek, Ohio, started the week with a 12in hotdog earlier this month.

But the US is waking up to the problem of childhood obesity and administrations across the country are banishing fatty food from canteens, while fizzy drinks are being removed from school vending machines. And in California, Ann Cooper, Berkeley schools' director of nutrition, has succeeded in persuading pupils to queue up for organic salad, achieved partly by refurbishing canteens to make them resemble a shopping mall food court and partly by setting the price of a meal at (pound;2), making school dinners cheaper and more convenient than trekking into town.

In parts of Africa, lessons are still something of a luxury let alone school meals.

Last Christmas, Oxfam supporters bought 89,000 packets of school dinners for distribution to schools in the poorest areas. Each packet contained 100 meals and cost pound;6.

FRANCE

Charente

Monday

Potato and beetroot salad, fried fillet of hake, creamed spinach, gouda cheese, nectarine

Tuesday

Cucumber salad, sauteed Andalusian-style duck, yoghurt, fruit cocktail

Wednesday

Rice salad, grilled merguez sausage with braised cabbage, plums

Thursday

Lettuce salad, shark steak Provence-style, buttered wheat, fresh pineapple

Friday

Melon, grilled steak, prunes

USA

Beavercreek, Ohio

Monday

Foot-long hotdog, corn, apple sauce, milk

Tuesday

Taco, pears, fruit juice, milk

Wednesday

Pizza, garden salad, pears, milk

Thursday

Chicken pattie or nuggets, mashed potato, fruit or juice, milk

Friday

Breadsticks with sauce and cheese, baked beans, pears, milk

FINLAND CENTRAL

Monday

Mince or soya with vegetable sauce, pasta or potatoes, salad

Tuesday

Fish triangles or veggie burger with lemon sauce, boiled or mashed potatoes, grated carrot

Wednesday

Moussaka or vegetarian moussaka with mashed potato and salad

Thursday

Pea soup or vegetarian pea soup with fresh vegetables and bread

Friday

Turkey in orange sauce, chicken fricassee or lentil and vegetable casserole with rice and salad

Spain Colegio Alkor, Madrid

Monday

Russian salad, cordon bleu escalope with chips, seasonal fruit, bread, milk Tuesday

Macaroni with grated cheese, fried swordfish with salad, ice cream, bread

Wednesday

Pinto beans and chorizo sausage, potato omelette, fruit smoothie, bread

Thursday

Valencian paella, tropical salad, fruit, bread, milk

Friday

Green beans and tomatoes, chicken roasted with apples and potatoes, apricots, bread, milk

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