Being a vegetarian in France isn’t easy — fewer than 2 percent of the French population calls itself vegetarian — and the passing of a new law on October 3 is likely to make it all but impossible for schoolchildren to do so. The new rules do not place an outright ban on vegetarian meals, but, by mandating certain minimum nutritional requirements, “make it clear that the state believes all sources of protein should come from animal, not vegetable, products,” according to Brigitte Gothière of the vegetarian association L214.
All school canteens feeding more than 80 children must serve meals with specific quantities of protein, iron, calcium and fresh fruit:
Schools now have to provide meals which include a protein element with accompaniment, such as rice or vegetables, a dairy product (for example cheese or yoghurt) and either a starter or a pudding. The protein can be cheese but a dairy product is also obligatory as a separate element.
… On a 20-meal cycle, a minimum of four meals must include “quality meat” and four “quality fish,” and on the other days, egg, cheese or “abats” (offal) should be the main dish. Isabelle Dudouet-Bercegeay, president of the Association Végétarienne de France, says: “It’s a case of ‘If you don’t want your child to eat meat, don’t use the canteen.’”
Matthieu Grégory, food adviser to the minister said that the new laws adhere with national Nutrition Santé (nutrition and health) plans and provide a “balanced diet.” He did not outrule “menus with a substitution” on a “case by case basis” provided that “towns adhere to the decree.” But under the new decree, schools that serve vegetarian meals would be in effect breaking the law, while vegan meals would simply be impossible. L214 issued a statement saying that
The government has brought the law into school catering, imposing a model based on a high consumption of animal products and banning vegetarianism.”
20 members of L214 staged a protest on October 26, challenging the new rules.
The system for school meals in France is a quite different sort of affair than it is in the US where pizza, potatoes in various guises. hamburgers and sandwiches are the norm. Lunch in French schools can often consist of rabbit, veal, cassoulet or raclette with sausages. Children in the equivalent of preschool and elementary school are served only one meal option so, on the days when meat is part of the main dish — on most days, that is — there is no vegetarian option. Older children have a “self-service system” and can choose not to eat meat but, since a meat dish is most likely to be the only protein offered, they will inevitably end up with a nutritionally deficient meal.
A number of parents have voiced concerns about their children being in effect forced to eat meat. Children who are Jewish or Muslim are also affected by the new laws; they have already not been eating main courses if pork is used.
The new regulations for meals in French schools amount to what you could call state-mandated meat eating. In French schools, it would seem that there’s no freedom — no liberté — when it comes to what to eat, and no equality (égalité) about what counts as protein.
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Photo of cassoulet by telepathic paranoia