Parents of pupils in the 18th district of Paris are up in arms about what’s on their children’s plates in school canteens. They’ve shared photos of the food, which they deem mediocre, and the rundown industrial kitchen where it’s all prepared.

After their children kept complaining about their school meals, a group of parents in the 18th district of Paris wanted to get to the bottom of what was really served in school canteens. They started posting photos of their children’s school meals on a Facebook page called "Les enfants du 18 mangent ça", or “Children in the 18th eat that”. The group also paid a visit to the centralised kitchen where the contractor Sogeres prepares the 14,000 meals served every day in the neighbourhood’s primary and middle schools.

Their investigation led them to create an online petition, calling angrily for the contractor to stop using processed food with additives, hidden sugar, high salt content, preservatives and colouring, as well as criticising the conditions in the kitchen.

The caption reads: “On the menu: the amuse-bouche: dried fig, pak choi in a tomato vinaigrette – minced beef in a tomato and oregano sauce, peas – milk chocolate mousse, shortbread biscuits. On the tray: the dried fig is nowhere to be seen, the minced beef is replaced by nuggets.”

The caption reads: “On the menu: roast beef, the Chef’s mashed potato (for primary school students) / potatoes (for those in nursery) – Saint Nectaire AOC – Apple from local producer”

This text reads: “On Tuesday December 12, a group of parents went to the central kitchen of the 18th district, situated at 72 rue Riquet. There we found a kitchen producing 16,000 meals a day (14,000 meals just for the 18th district and 2,000 for the 2nd district) in a small and outmoded space. This kitchen looked more like a regular kitchen, or a kitchen just suitable for assembling meals. We found the famous plastic containers that are used to distribute the meals to schools (in cold storage) before being reheated (in the plastic containers) by canteen staff before mealtimes. They told us that there wasn’t any Bisphenol A but weren’t able to say with certainty that other chemicals didn’t leach into the food during the heating process. They explained the timings of the production process for meals served to children: made two days, three days or even four days before they would actually be consumed. By the end of our visit, it was apparent to us that this centralised kitchen isn’t suitable for the production of 16,000 meals on a daily basis.

"Our main criticism is about the quality of the products served"

The local town hall is set to choose a new contractor for the next school year. The parent’s collective is hoping that their campaign will allow them to have some say over the choice. One of the parents, a spokesperson for the collective, explained their project.

Our children have been telling us for a while that they’re not eating well at the school canteen. But only a few of us parents knew that the contractor was meant to change at the end of the 2017-2018 school year. Since October, we’ve been going almost daily into the canteens to see what our kids are eating. Then we put photos of the trays on our Facebook page. And little by little, more and more parents started following the page and sharing their own concerns.

Our main criticism is about the quality of the food offered. The town hall told us that the contractor uses good-quality brands and has committed to making 40 percent of the meals served organic, but we’ve still been noticing some dodgy products. For example, if you read the ingredients guide for some of the food [Editor’s Note: These leaflets are available in the canteens for all of the parents to read if they wish], we realised that the chicken drumsticks served had added sugar, or even that sliced vegetables were made with starch, wheat powder, tomato sauce and maltodextrin [a mixture of different sugars that you get after processing wheat starch or maize]. When we visited the centralised cuisine [which is open to the public] where the contractor operates, we saw how rundown and small it was.

"Meals served two or three days later"

The meals are packed in plastic, hermetically sealed and then the contents reheated before being served, sometimes two or three days later. This despite the number of scientific studies that seem to prove the health risk this can pose, as poisonous chemicals can come out during the reheating process.

What’s really shocking is that the 18th district is the only one to entrust all school catering to a private contractor. Other districts have already made the switch to providing 90% organic meals, like in the 2nd district.”


Each district is in charge of its own food

From the contractors to the staffing and the creation of menus, everything is run by 20 ‘caisses des écoles’, or school funding groups, one for each district in Paris. The Paris town hall transfers grant money to each group. But each district has its own way of planning school meals: some use external contractors, others a more public process (where the district’s town hall is directly in charge of managing it). Some use a ‘cold chain’ (where the meals are cooked and then reheated before being consumed, like in the 18th district), while others use a ‘hot chain’.

The previous manager of school affairs in Paris, Alexandra Cordebard, said in 2016 that there were ‘enormous disparities’ between the districts in terms of their catering.

"We have no desire to serve bad food”

Contacted by FRANCE 24, the 18th district’s town hall refused to discuss discrepancies between different districts, but did say that in Paris there are “as many school catering providers as there are districts”.

“In the 18th district, we have no desire to serve bad food, and we already have stringent standards in place. We are obviously trying to improve, and we are actually even ahead of schedule in terms of a sustainable food plan set out by the Paris authorities,” said the local town hall in response to the parent’s petition.

Regarding organic products, the town hall of the 18th district says that it won’t be possible to reach the goal of 90 percent organic products as in the 2nd district, because the latter is less populated. “There are around 20,000 residents in the 2nd district, and 14,000 meals to serve just in the 18th – they are two completely different situations.”

The town hall however does congratulate the parents for being so invested in the running of the schools, and invited them to take part in school participative commissions. The town hall said that it would take into account the amendments to their list of projects that have been suggested by the parents’ collective with a view to changing the catering provider.