What do you remember about your school canteen? It could easily be suspected that for a very high percentage of you the immediate response would be some sort of onomatopoeia like "yuck". But do not let those memories blind you...
Because there are those who are fighting to educate children about good nutrition, and the canteen is their classroom.
Since its inception in 1990, more than 500,000 students have benefitted from Chefs Adopt a School, a programme developed in the United Kingdom by the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts. On paper, the idea is as simple as can be — since schools are equipped with canteens, they also have the ingredients and tools for cooking, so all that is needed is to bring students into these spaces for another reason other than eating lunch. And as this is an educational activity, there is no need to justify the link with schools.
That said, there is nonetheless the problem of a lack of instructors. This is where the chefs come in, and not just any run-of-the-mill chefs. Take for example, Raymond Blanc, a chef originally from the Jura, whom the newspaper Le Monde once described as the "Chef of the Entente Cordiale". For over forty years, he has officiated over the Great Milton a few kilometres from Oxford, becoming one of the UK's greatest culinary stars. But his efforts do not end there, he is also deeply committed to food education.
He and his teams from Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons regularly intervene in the canteens of the two secondary schools near the hotel-restaurant as part of the Chefs Adopt a School programme. Their participation also extends to the gardens of Le Manoir, where they dispense their knowledge about heirloom seeds and the basics of sustainable gardening to students and teens.
Why is delving into the world of food important for students? First and foremost, it is for them to learn about the link between nutrition and health. Sorting, searching for the right information; identifying good fruits, vegetables with flavour, protein-rich foods and so on are essential first steps. This is the same opinion held by Colin Bedford, chef at the Fearrington House Restaurant, who also adds in diabetes-specific education, since the disease is the third leading cause of death in the United States.
Colin participates in an American programme similar to the one developed in the UK: the Chefs to Schools Challenge. Launched in 2001, in partnership with 17 local schools that bring together 8,000 students, Colin has made the programme a daily priority and regularly sponsors a number of activities aimed at improving the situation in canteens.
So are canteens that do not elicit the immediate response of "yuck" soon to become the norm? Unfortunately, there still seems to be a long road ahead. Johann Lafer, who has also invested his time in a school canteen near his restaurant, Stromburg, in Germany has experienced the problem first-hand. After years of teaching 700 of his little neighbours about the joys of homemade food in the canteen, he was hit by the harsh reality of the public procurement process and the drastic cuts that were imposed on him. The same is happening in the United States, where the Trump administration has been making systematic cuts to these types of programmes, which will go into effect this school year.
But that said, there is still something that gives us hope — the undeniable acceleration in how information circulates. It is opening up the consciousness of a new generation of parents and teachers who are ready to actively give new meaning to the old adage "Mens sana in corpore sano".