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Meat-free school meals spark protests

School canteens in the city of Lyon in France remove beef and chicken from their menu setting off protests among meat farmers

The menu includes eggs, salad starters, a milk product — often cheese or yoghurt — and dessert. (Vanessa Loring, Pexels)
The menu includes eggs, salad starters, a milk product — often cheese or yoghurt — and dessert. (Vanessa Loring, Pexels)

By taking meat off the menu at school canteens, the ecologist mayor of one of France's most famously gastronomic cities has kicked up a storm of protest and debate as the country increasingly questions the environmental costs of its meaty dietary habits.

Children in Lyon who were regularly offered such choices as beef and chicken in rich sauces found their meat option missing this week when they returned from school holidays. In its place: a meatless four-course meal that Lyon City Hall says will be quicker and easier to serve to children who, because of the coronavirus pandemic, must be kept apart during lunch to avoid infections.

City Hall insists that the meatless meals are temporary and that school canteens will again offer meat options when social distancing rules are relaxed and children once again have more time to dwell on their food choices and to eat.

And the meat-free menus still contain animal proteins. This week's planned main courses include fish on Monday and Friday and eggs — either as omelettes or hard boiled with a creamy sauce — on other days. Children also get salad starters, a milk product — often cheese or yoghurt — and dessert.

Still, farmers saw red. Some drove farm vehicles, cows and goats in protest on Monday into Lyon, which is fiercely proud of its rich restaurant culture and signature dishes, many of them meaty.

Protesters' banners and placards extolled meat-eating, proclaiming “meat from our fields = a healthy child” and “Stopping meat is a guarantee of weakness against coronaviruses to come.”

The government's agriculture minister, Julien Denormandie, also weighed in, accusing Lyon City Hall of “putting ideology in our children's plates.” He and other critics argued the measure would penalize children from poorer families who might not be able to eat meat outside of school.

“From a nutritional point of view, it is absurd to stop serving meat,” the minister said Tuesday on RTL radio. “From a social point of view, it is shameful.”

Although fueled by the quintessentially French obsession with food and the country's powerful farming lobby, the furor has also gathered steam and taken on a political hue because of France's electoral calendar.

A wave of wins by green candidates, including the mayor of Lyon, in municipal elections last year dealt a blow to the centrist party of French President Emmanuel Macron. Their success reflected growing concerns in France about the environmental damage from intensive farming and other green issues. With more local elections expected later this year, the arguing over Lyon's school meals offered a foretaste of broader political battles to come.

Lyon City Hall said serving the same meal to all children, instead of offering them their usual meat and meat-free options, would shorten the time they take for lunch. City Hall said it has just two hours to feed 29,000 children, which is a harder schedule to keep when classes have to be kept apart in canteens to minimize virus infections. City Hall said it also opted for meat-free meals because they suit all children, including those who habitually don't eat meats for religious, dietary or other reasons.

The mayor, Gregory Doucet, said he is a flexitarian, eats meat in reasonable amounts, and isn't trying to force vegetarianism on children.

“Being able to offer a seated hot meal to all the children is important,” he told broadcaster BFM-TV. “This is Lyon, the capital of gastronomy. For us, flavor is also essential.”

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