Why is lunch at school so bad

theme - Eat

The gong sounds, it's a quarter past twelve. Lunch break at the grammar school in Münchberg, a small town in Upper Franconia. When twelve-year-old Meriç and his classmates rush to the canteen at this time every day, a table is set for them. Knife, fork and the small spoon for dessert lie on apple-green doilies, next to them are glasses and carafes with tea. Sixth grader Meriç picks up his freshly prepared meal at the counter. From three main courses, he decided today for the spaghetti with pesto and cherry tomatoes. On top of that, a splash of balsamic vinegar for the look, plus a salad from the buffet. "I like it here," says Meriç, "and I think it's good that there is always a vegetarian dish for students like me who don't eat pork."

Lots of fruit and vegetables, fish, whole grain products and lean meat: This is how the German Nutrition Society (DGE) imagines healthy eating in school canteens. But many other canteens in Germany are far from what ends up on the plates in Münchberg. A study by the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences came to the conclusion at the end of 2014 that they seldom offer fish and vegetables and too often meat. A salad buffet like the one in Münchberg is only available at less than a third of the schools surveyed. And in just under 40 percent of schools, the lunch break, as recommended by the DGE, lasts longer than three quarters of an hour.

Behind every overcooked broccoli and lukewarm meat loaf there is a fundamental political problem.

So a lot of children and teenagers have to gobble up their food quickly - and that's pretty unhealthy. Most of the students give their canteen a grade 2 to 3+, but many prefer to get something in town or eat at home. Enthusiasm for school catering looks different.

Behind every overcooked broccoli and lukewarm meat loaf there is a fundamental political problem. Because education in Germany is a matter for the federal states and the federal ministries are subject to a prohibition of cooperation anchored in the Basic Law. You are hardly allowed to work with the federal states on issues related to school. At the state level, on the other hand, there are hardly any binding regulations as to who supports school catering and how. The ministries of culture are often of the opinion that the issue should be settled with the ministry of food, and the ministries of food see it the other way around, says Michael Polster, chairman of the German Network for School Meals (DNSV), an association that campaigns for better school lunches. Polster wants “fresh cooking every day at every school” in the future. In order for this to work, there needs to be statutory regulations on how school catering works in Germany, believes Polster.

"Germany has a problem with the appreciation of food."

As school authorities, the municipalities are formally responsible for organizing the catering, but they often leave this task to the schools. How the costs for the meal are composed and who pays how much is often “completely opaque”, judges the recently retired nutritionist Volker Peinelt, who has been researching school meals in this country for decades. He thinks: "Germany has a problem with the appreciation of food."

Compared to other industrial nations such as France, the willingness to spend a little more money on good food is low in this country, says Peinelt. But it is also part of the problem that school meals are of little importance for many parents. The pain threshold for them is on average 3.50 euros per meal, Peinelt knows from his surveys.

In many places, the price for school lunches is even well below this limit. A menu at secondary schools in Saxony-Anhalt costs 2.25 euros on average, in Baden-Württemberg it is 3.42 euros. Because the municipalities only partially provide subsidies for the canteens, most schools commission external catering companies. Cheap providers almost always rely on hot meals, where the food is prepared in the central kitchen and then driven from place to place.

In addition, most of the vitamins are lost and the food becomes soft, tasteless and often looks bad.

The problem: Because the caterers supply so many schools, the food has to be kept warm in some places for hours. "The risk of germs growing is high with hot meals," warns Peinelt. In addition, most of the vitamins are lost, and the food becomes soft, tasteless and often looks nasty.

There is a complete self-management as in Münchberg only in about every seventh canteen of the schools in Germany surveyed by the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences as part of their study. So that the head of the canteen, Gabriele Ruckdeschel and her team, can master the work in the kitchen, the district of Hof repeatedly assigns trainees and interns and supports the canteen with grants. Nevertheless, the most expensive lunch menu in Münchberg costs 4.50 euros. For many parents, this price is “borderline”, says Ruckdeschel.

The fact that they are still willing to spend the money could not only be due to the quality of the food but also to the fact that the cafeteria is noticeably part of the school. The canteen manager knows the children by name, the tables are lovingly decorated depending on the season. And: teachers also have lunch here.

Where school catering works well, there are usually generous cities, districts or federal states behind it.

Wherever school catering works well, there are usually generous cities, districts or federal states behind it. "It's great when it works so well in some places," says researcher Peinelt, "but you shouldn't believe that you can multiply these examples across the board in Germany." also adequately qualified staff.

Peinelt therefore advocates a so-called temperature-decoupled system: "Cook and Chill". The food is pre-cooked in large kitchens, then cooled down and cooked to the end in the canteens. The advantage: "Cook and Chill" is cheaper than the fresh kitchen because fewer staff are required. At the same time, however, the food contains more nutrients and is more hygienic than warm meals. And: In contrast to her, the food looks better and tastes better, emphasizes Peinelt.

In recent years, the Federal Ministry of Nutrition has made a number of attempts to improve canteen food. Together with the federal states, the ministry has set up networking centers for more than eight million euros. They are supposed to make the DGE standards better known in schools, organize events on healthy eating and also offer coaching for school canteens in Bavaria, for example.

University canteens and government canteens receive generous government subsidies, but the smallest in society do not.

When asked why the ministry does not set the DGE standards as a binding guideline, Food and Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt refers to the responsible federal states. “But I take responsibility as far as I can,” says Schmidt. He will soon open a national quality center for healthy eating in day-care centers and schools, which will coordinate the work of the networking units. In addition, a kind of TÜV for caterers is being planned.

If you ask Gabriele Ruckdeschel what she would like for the school canteens in Germany, she gives a clear answer: “Money.” At the moment, school catering in Germany only works through committed people “who cannot be paid every hour”. It annoys them that university canteens and government canteens received generous government subsidies, but not the smallest in society.

In the past, Minister Schmidt has repeatedly advocated nutrition as a school subject so that schoolchildren can learn more about healthy eating. This was once lived at Gymnasium Münchberg, when children and young people helped out in the kitchen and made calculations for shopping in business classes. Then came the eight-year high school. Since then, there has been no more space on the timetable for practical nutrition.

Photo: Henk Wildschut