French chef fights junk food epidemic at schools

Forget frozen fish-fingers and chewy mashed potatoes. A French school has become the country’s first to hire a professional chef to cook up fresh, cheap food from local products every day.

The aim? To energise listless teenage taste buds and control weight problems, which are currently estimated by the European Commission to affect about 22-million of the European Union’s 75-million children.

“It’s great, I could never eat such a balanced meal for such a price—€3—anywhere else,” said Ryan Batjiaka, an American language assistant at the L’Emperi school, in Salon-de-Provence, a town in southern of France.

“It’s also a great way to discover French food because Dominique cooks a wide range of dishes,” she said.

Lunches, as prepared by Dominique Valadier, formerly a chef at restaurants on the Cote d’Azur and in the Alps, are priced at €3 for teachers and €2,20 for students. This is about half the price of a canteen meal at many other schools in France which can charge up to €6 per day.

Valadier, who rises at 5.30am to begin preparations for the school’s lunch, is a robust 56-year-old with a jovial smile.

“If you want to cook for yourself, you have to get up early,” he said, deploring the fact that many school canteens are content to reheat food that is pre-prepared by outside catering businesses.

For him, a school should play a crucial role in teaching children how to eat properly, and, in turning them away from junk by ensuring they get the best possible choice food.

A pertinent aim, given a recent French study, which, echoing the Commissions findings, estimated that one child in five is too fat, plus several other studies indicating that not enough fresh fruit and vegetables are being eaten.

For today’s main course, Valadier is preparing roast loin of pork for about 600 students, cooked for four and a half hours at low temperatures to retain both its taste and tenderness.

For those who don’t like pork there will be fish in a white wine, lemon and olive oil sauce, all prepared first hand by Valadier, his second in command Florence Lagache and their two assistants.

For starters, to attract the wary teenager, Valadier dribbles normally unpopular turnips with honey and offers a choice of other fresh products including small amounts of carrots, artichokes in sauce or olive tapenade.

The entire team will also be present in the self-service canteen where the students eat lunch, ready to explain the different dishes and answer questions.

Given the students’ reactions, with some saying they now prefer to eat in the canteen rather than at home, and others comparing it to a real restaurant, the eating-better part initiative seems to be working well, and will hopefully have positive results in terms of weight and general health.

“Dominique Valadier is proof that cooking with fresh products does not cost more,” said Charles Symphorien Mercier, a doctor who specialises in the treatment of infantile obesity in Sarnary-sur-mer, another town in Provence.

“We say that vegetables are too expensive, but that is because we have lost the sense of the seasons,” said Valadier.

Valadier is also careful to use the scraps, from the pork for example, for making other things like homemade pate, which, he says, will be served the following day, and contains less fat that the ready made version.

The problem for many, he says, is however that working hours do not leave people enough time to cook and buy their own food, making obesity both an environmental and a social issue.

Valadier’s words serve to confirm the results of another study, this time by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in December 2007, which judged the worldwide problem of obesity would only be solved by concerted efforts from urban planners—to encourage walking and spaces for physical exercise in general—and commercial working environments, as well as just telling people to eat better.

“A person working at a checkout is there till 11pm, because we want shops that are open till 11pm, or on Sunday.
The children, what do they do? They heat up a pizza, then ‘eat’ in front of the TV with a packet of chips,” Valadier said.

“If we want to fight obesity, we need to think about a different kind of society.” - AFP

Client Media Releases

Sanral receives high honour
Conference validates contribution of traditional birth attendants
What makes IIE Rosebank College cool?