Lyon school canteens going vegetarian: The meat of the matter

Heated debates in France over meatless meals in schools


February 23, 2021

/ By / Paris

Lyon school canteens going vegetarian: The meat of the matter

A law passed in October 2018 made it mandatory for all school canteens to offer vegetarian meals, at least once a week and for a trial period of two years (Photo credit: Laurent Bourgogne / Ville de Paris)

Decision by the municipality of Lyon, one of the largest cities in France, to go vegetarian in school canteens leads to heated debates within and outside the government.

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Barely back in France from a visit to India, French ecological transition minister Barbara Pompili plunged headlong into one of the hottest discussions going on across France today – meatless meals in school canteens.

“I regret a lot that on this issue we are falling into a prehistoric debate. I regret outdated clichés like a vegetarian diet is not a balanced one, while we know that meat can be very effectively replaced by eggs, fish and vegetables that provide all the necessary proteins,” Pompili said, going head against statements by some of her own ministerial colleagues.

Just a day earlier, French agriculture minister Julien Denormandie had asked local officials in Lyon to bet on meat in the school menus to help the meat growing industry. He also said that he had raised the issue with the Prefet, administrative head of the region. Interior minister Gerald Darmanin had also sharply criticised the decision of the Green party Mayor of Lyon Gregory Doucet as hurting the poorer sections of the society. Darmanin said that the Greens were imposing a “scandalous ideology” and “moralist policies”, on top of offering up an “unacceptable insult” to French farmers and butchers. He also said that it was common knowledge that children from underprivileged backgrounds consumed lesser meat at home and hence needed the meat in the school meal.

Taking Darmanin head on, Pompili said various studies showed just the reverse. She said that such clichés prevented a real debate on why vegetarian menus should be put in place, highlighting that meat industry accounts for 15 pc of greenhouse gas emissions and it contributes strongly to deforestation.

Go Green, go vegetarian

The controversy erupted last week when the municipality of Lyon, one of the biggest French cities governed by the Green party, decided to go fully ‘vegetarian’ for two years in all the 2016 school canteens that provide discounted meals to students. The decision became operational on Monday as schools reopened after a fortnight-long vacation, euphemistically called the ‘ski-vacation’ as many French families head to ski in February. Mayor Doucet said that he wanted to introduce single menu, without meat, keeping in mind the social distancing norms in place in schools which lead to fewer students being able to eat at the same time. “Single menu goes much faster in terms of distribution,” he said, adding that it would allow every student to have lunch within the time for lunch break.

The far-right party of Marine Le Pen, Rassemblement Nationale, has also criticised the move to go vegetarian saying it was against the French culture and culinary traditions.

Despite the criticism, over the past few months, the French government has been experimenting with daily vegetarian meals in school canteens as part of the law on climate and outcomes of the citizens’ convention on climate (CCC) that actually calls for a daily vegetarian option in canteens from next year. A law passed in October 2018 made it mandatory for all school canteens to offer vegetarian meals, at least once a week and for a trial period of two years.

At that time a survey by Greenpeace France said that the French welcomed the law as 60 pc of the French supported the idea of introducing a meal without meat or fish and 74 pc of those between 18-34 years encouraged the action. Greenpeace also found that the meatless diet found better support amongst women, better educated people as well as residents of big cities and those who vote for left parties. Another survey found that children ate at least twice the amount of meat than was good for them and that vegetarian meals can be up to 30 pc cheaper than those with meat. It also found that 71 pc of canteens had a vegetarian meal once a week while 3 pc offered it twice. Greenpeace also said that a vegetarian meal had more options and was healthier.

Much more than palate preferences or culinary traditions, the biggest reason behind the controversy is the powerful meat industry of France which sees in Lyon decision a strategic challenge as over 1.2 billion meals are served each year in school canteens, providing a secure and sure market for the meat producers of France.

Certainly, the prospect of losing this lucrative slice is bound to give them and a whole lot of others a bout of severe indigestion.



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