7 min

Transforming food systems worldwide with school meals

In a context of rising global food insecurity, school meal programmes help ensure the healthy development of children. INRAE is working with the French government to provide scientific support for public policy in this area, through its research and its role in the School Meals Coalition. Launched at the UN Food Systems Summit in September 2021, the Coalition met in Paris from 18–19 October. An opportunity to review the Institute’s contributions by looking at the situation in France. Research conducted by INRAE teams was presented at a side event on October 20th about French research on school meals.

Published on 19 October 2023

illustration Transforming food systems worldwide with school meals

The School Meals Coalition is one of 30 coalitions launched at the first UN Food Systems Summit in 2021. The initiative aims to accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by supporting various approaches to transforming food systems by 2030 in each country. INRAE is a participant in two coalitions supported by the French government: one for agroecology, and the other for school meals.

Co-chaired by Finland and France, the School Meals Coalition strives to ensure that 418 million children will have access to a healthy and nutritious meal every day through school meal programmes by 2030. The 90 member countries of the Coalition represent 65% of the world’s population and are home to 100 partner organizations, including INRAE.

Read the report

School meals as a means to globally transition toward healthy and sustainable food

The urgent improvement and scaling up of school meal programmes is a response by governments to the rise of multiple crises and their effects on global food security since 2021. Hundreds of millions of children kept out of school by the COVID-19 pandemic lost access to these programmes in a context of rising poverty. Furthermore, food supply chains are disrupted by geopolitical conflict and the effects of climate change.

In this context of rising global food insecurity, school meal programmes provide optimal conditions for a child’s development, including harmonious growth, cognitive and motor development, immunity and resistance to infections, and overall well-being.

One dollar invested in giving children enough healthy and varied food yields a nine dollar return on investment

It is widely agreed that every dollar invested in the early years of a child’s life will have a significant impact on their health, their ability to receive an education, and their well-being in the years that follow.

School meal programmes provide an excellent return on investment in child nutrition. Meals at school also play a central role in sustainable food systems, thanks to their pivotal role between food production and consumption. School meal programmes are usually operated by local authorities, creating an ideal environment in which to develop public policy that supports sustainable food systems in partnership with local producers. School meals help achieve several sustainable development goals, including SDG 2 (zero hunger), 3 (health), 4 (education for all) and 5 (gender equality).

Helping shape public policy with school meal research in France

For all of these reasons, France is committed to the coalition at the national level. French President Emmanuel Macron announced the first global meeting of the Coalition, held in Paris from 18 to 19 October.

Research plays a critical role in defining the best school meal programmes for optimal learning and in improving political and economic levels to ensure that school meals help children and farmers equally. INRAE has been involved from the beginning in the Research Consortium for School Health and Nutrition, to which a dozen INRAE researchers contribute via RESCO, a French research network created to coordinate France’s efforts for the consortium. The network was commissioned to report on the implementation of school meal programmes, legislative trends, funding and perceived benefits in France. This report was prepared by four French experts: Sylvie Avallone (Coordinator, Institut Agro Montpellier), Céline Giner (OECD), Sophie Nicklaus and Nicole Darmon (INRAE Dijon and Montpellier).

INRAE is working with the French government to provide scientific support for these school meal initiatives. The Institute’s research looks at how school meals contribute to a child’s nutritional status, development, and food habits. It also analyses economic aspects of these programmes. The work was central to the recent publication of the report on school meals in France, which is exemplary in many respects.

School meals in France

In France, 8.5 million children between the ages of 3 and 17 eat at least once a week at their school canteen.

School meal programmes in France are designed not only to meet the physiological and nutritional needs of children, but to develop their global awareness about food as well: they learn about tastes, nutritional balance, culinary traditions, and protecting the environment by reducing waste and uneaten food. In terms of content, meals served to children must adhere to several principles: each meal must have four or five components (a protein-based main course, a side dish, a dairy product and the option of a starter or dessert) and follow nationally established rules on meal content. For example, out of 20 meals, children must be offered no more than four starters with a fat content of 15% or more; at least four fish-based meals (or a dish containing 70% fish or more), and at least 8 whole-fruit desserts. There are 15 such rules. INRAE research shows that meals compliant with these recommendations ensure satisfactory nutritional intakes.


Ambitious public policy in France

France’s EGalim law on agriculture and food, in effect since 2019 and enhanced by the Climate and Resilience Law of 2021, have resulted in the creation of several regulations to accelerate the transition to a healthier and more sustainable diet, particularly at school canteens:

  • Since 2021, school canteens in France must serve at least one vegetarian meal per week.
  • Since 1 January 2022, 50% of the ingredients in meals must be sustainably sourced and of excellent quality (20% of ingredients must be organic).
  • In 2025, single-use plastic will be banned in collective catering.

Going  further

Nicole Darmon, a nutritional scientist at the MOISA unit, has conducted research showing that following the 15 meal content rules ensures a high level of nutritional quality in the meals served. In terms of environmental impact, however, there is room for improvement! Nicole has demonstrated that increasing the number of vegetarian meals served (up to 12 out of every 20) and serving fish and white meat rather than red on other days appears to be the best way to halve the greenhouse gas emissions produced by school meals while maintaining nutritional quality.

How can school canteens reduce food inequalities?

In France, on average, a meal at the school canteen costs €7.30 (2020 data). As part of its anti-poverty plan, the French government subsidises school meals and parents pay a portion of this cost based on household income. Over 75% of French towns and cities of more than 10,000 inhabitants apply this social pricing policy. Since 2019, the French government has offered additional support to small communities of less than 10,000 inhabitants so that they can offer meals at a cost of €1 to the most underprivileged families. The State gives these smaller towns and cities €3 per meal for meals billed at €1.25 to low-income families.

Experimenting a food system at the regional level

The city of Dijon serves 8,000 meals a day in its school canteens — a total of 1.3 million meals a year.

The city is testing an ambitious policy to transform food systems at the regional level.  Dijon, Alimentation Durable 2030, a project sponsored by the Territoire d’innovation programme, operates 25 initiatives aimed at developing eating habits that accommodate health, environmental, social and economic challenges.

Local food systems and quality = half the waste

In the context of school meals, efforts involve finding ways to lower the carbon footprint of food and source ingredients locally. A network of farmers was created to supply locally grown beef to canteens. A vegetable processing centre opened in May 2023 to supply the main municipal kitchen with produce, legumes and fruit from local and certified organic growers. These initiatives already ‘bear fruit’: food waste has dropped 54% between 2017 and 2021 and 50% of the school canteen budget goes to purchasing high-quality and/or local products (34% is organic and 14.5% are locally sourced). Furthermore, research conducted with Sophie Nicklaus’s team confirmed the nutritional quality of the canteen meals and demonstrated the carbon savings possible by adding a second weekly vegetarian meal as a standard.

The role of education in food

The school canteen is also where children enjoy and learn about food, particularly in France, a country with deeply rooted culinary traditions. Sophie Nicklaus

The Dijon, alimentation Durable 2030 project also aims to help children enjoy trying and eating food that is good for them and for the planet, in ways that make food fun. Research teams have installed feedback terminals in 38 of the city’s school canteens to see if children like the meals that are served. Results show that vegetarian meals are as appreciated as meat-based ones. However, new recipes are less popular, such as cabbage-based dishes. The Super School Canteen programme, co-developed with the school catering and sustainable food department and the non-profit Éveil’ô’goût, plays a key role in improving children’s appreciation of these foods and has developed fun approaches to cabbages and legumes. 

Ariane Lelah and Elodie RegnierAuthors / Translated by Emma Morton

Scientific contact

Sophie Nicklaus Research Director, INRAE Bourgogne-Franche-ComtéUMR1324 Centre for Taste and Feeding Behavior (CSGA)



Learn more

Food, Global Health

Sophie Nicklaus and eating habits: from high chair to food systems

Sophie Nicklaus is as good at deciphering the meal-time facial expressions of babies as she is at understanding complex stakeholder interactions in regional projects. Such talents serve her commitment to sustainable and healthy eating, from the individual to community level, from birth to adulthood. Research director at the Centre for Taste and Feeding Behaviour (CSGA) at INRAE's Burgundy-Franche-Comté centre, Sophie is the winner of the 2022 INRAE Scientific Breakthrough Award.

29 November 2022