What happens if you treat healthy school meals as a public service?

Meet France's new 'municipal farmers' supplying organic produce to local schools.

Barnabé Binctin
18 March 2020, 11.43am
Image: Eduardo Luzzatti

This article is part of the series Cities versus Multinationals by the European Network of Corporate Observatories (ENCO).

Amid the coronavirus crisis, French citizens were called to vote in municipal elections last Sunday, while the second round, scheduled for 22 March, has been postponed til 21 June.

The elections were called in a context of widespread protests against Emmanuel Macron's government and its pension reforms. The movement of the “gilets jaunes” reflected both a focus on living conditions and an aspiration to more direct democracy, while green movements and climate marchers are hoping cities and local authorities will be up to the task of driving a genuine transition.

Beyond an often frustrating and divisive national political scene, some local politicians are indeed developing concrete solutions, using municipal institutions, sometimes in unexpected ways. One example is the growing movement of French city councils seeking to source affordable, local, organic food for their school restaurants – sometimes going as far as creating their own “municipal farms”. A potential game-changer not only for school kids and their parents, but also for farmers and cooks.

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France's new “municipal farmers”

At first glance, the Richemont crèche, nestled in the French city centre of Vannes, not far from the docks, looks like any other childcare centre: plastic slides and drawings on the walls, bins full of slippers and booties, bright colours splashed everywhere, giving the place a warm, cosy feeling. But the parents who arrive to pick up their children at the end of the day on an afternoon in September, seem a little more calm and collected than the usual stressed-out variety. “When I come to pick up Suzanne, I know that she has had a good lunch, with fresh healthy ingredients,” says Laëtitia, mother of the little blonde two-and-a-half-year-old. “She’s even discovering new foods that I never cook, like butternut and fennel… It’s a fantastic way for her to start learning about nature and about the seasons.” Over the last few weeks, there have been some newcomers at the crèche: fresh fruit and vegetables, grown by the town’s official farmers and delivered fresh twice a week.

Everyone agrees that being able to provide quality and, ideally, local produce is a priority. The crèche’s manager has for several years been working towards making this dream a reality: “This is where things are going. Parents want their children to have organic, unprocessed foods,” says Bérengère Picard. But getting the right quantities turned out to be tricky. “Catering to toddlers is very different to catering to adults, with much smaller portions required. With 75 children aged between two months and three years, the crèche’s needs were limited. “We couldn’t find anyone that would deliver such small quantities of fresh produce. No one’s interested in delivering four kilos of fresh beans,” adds the manager.

At the same time, Vannes’ city council was having similar issues with its school cafeterias: although it wanted to provide fresh, local produce for the town’s school cafeterias, and was providing land on which to grow such produce, no one replied to its call for tenders, no local market garden was interested in supplying school cafeterias. “We’re talking about a public procurement contract, which means having to guarantee a certain amount every day, delivered on time, with very strict quality standards and monitoring… It’s a lot for one farmer to deal with on their own. And on top of this, there’s the whole tender process which is time-consuming and complicated, and can end up putting off even the most motivated candidate", explains Bérengère Trénit, Vannes city council environmental manager. This situation means that big companies inevitably win out over small-scale farmers.

Can a city council turn into a producer of organic fruit and vegetables?

Out of this apparent impasse came an ambitious project, conceived in early 2018. If no one in the Vannes area was interested in producing fruit and vegetables for school cafeterias, then the Vannes city council would simply have to do it themselves! It acquired a hectare of land from its horticultural stock and commissioned GAB 56, a network of organic farmers, to undertake a feasibility study. “We needed to carry out an agricultural analysis of the land, and establish a crop calendar, calculating the land required for a diversified garden, looking at the predetermined needs and quantities required,” says Maëla Peden, project advisor at GAB56.

The project is being initially trialled on three public childcare centres – an average of 350 meals a day (170 lunches and 170 snacks) – so as to assess the concrete implications of a larger-scale project. It’s clear that this kind of undertaking is no mean feat: “We’re used to offering this sort of technical support to individual producers, but this is the first time we are doing this for a local government,” explains the engineer. “In these sorts of conditions, where the land hasn’t been worked on for a number of years and the idea is to grow diverse organic crops, we needed to find a farmer with a lot of experience.” In spring 2019, one applicant in particular shone out above the rest. Fitting the profile perfectly, he was subsequently hired. It wasn’t long before the spades were out and Vannes’ municipal farm was officially established.

Although this idea is still very new in France, it is not altogether unheard of. For almost ten years, the town of Mouans-Sartoux, in the Alpes Maritimes region, is proud to have played a pioneering role in establishing one of the first municipal farms. And this was no easy task for small town with 10,000 residents tucked between Grasse, Antibes and Cannes. Including the city of Nice, thirty kilometres away, 1.2 million residents live in the conurbation. Wedged between this concrete paradise, Mouans-Sartoux appears as an antique village with its four hectares of crops in the area of Haute-Combe.

The experiment has, however, been extremely fruitful, and not only in the figurative sense. Every year, 25 tons of organic fruit and vegetables are harvested and served in childcare centres and school cafeterias (1,300 meals: for three schools and three childcare centres as well as few extra council staff). 85% of produce comes from the municipal farm. Topped up with a small amount of organic produce from other sources, Mouans-Sartoux is famous for being first the first local government in France that guarantees its school and childcare meals to be 100% organic.

The region’s climate definitely plays a role in the project’s success. Although they sound something like twins, Cannes and Vannes have strikingly different climates. The sun is still scorching on the Côte d’Azur in early October, and the crops soak it up. And the crops aren’t the only ones to benefit from the warmth: a huge grass snake slinks out of the row of cabbages growing under netting, just a few metres away from Gilles Pérole. But he barely bats an eyelid. “It’s a good sign that biodiversity is alive and well!” says the councillor and early childhood and education deputy. He has been largely responsible for getting the project off the ground since its inception in 2009.

“If we all agree that organic is so good, why stop at 20% [the French official objective]?!” asks Gilles Pérole. “We soon realised, however, that often organic produce had to travel a long way to get here, and also be a lot more expensive. It required an approach that was both coherent and pragmatic. If we wanted everything to be organic, it would have to be sourced locally.”

But a sunny climate doesn’t guarantee success. Even with its optimal weather, it’s not that much easier to find a producer in the South of France interested in a public procurement contract for school cafeterias, for the same reasons cited in Brittany: “Too much uncertainty, no farmer can make a commitment to supply a certain amount of vegetables for a certain number of meals every day for a year,” says the Mouans councillor.

Good for schoolchildren, good for farmers

The idea of a municipal farm was a no-brainer in a town where many of its services are publicly owned and managed. School cafeterias, the drinking water, health and sanitary services, school transportation and funeral services are all managed by the Mouans-Sartoux city council, which is very much committed to the importance of public services.

“Contracting out public services effectively means not only losing control over the management and quality of a service, but also over its cost. This is particularly true in the agricultural industry where suppliers aren’t shy about adding additional fees. They are always finding ways to bump up the price without any particular concern for quality,” remarks Gilles Pérole.

This is the whole point of creating a municipal farm: being able break free from these big industrial companies that dictate the laws and prices on the catering market. Two types of companies currently dominate the sector: catering companies specialised in providing meals for schools and childcare centres, with kitchens that are themselves outsourced to private companies – Sodexo and Elior are the two biggest French companies, with over 500 million meals provided in 2018. Or food wholesalers, which do the complete opposite of what city-run services do. French companies such as Pomona or Brake France are the biggest players in this market. “We see the same trucks all over France,” sighs Gilles Pérole. And the food delivered by these trucks doesn’t exactly have a reputation for quality. With 3.7 billion meals delivered a year and a 17 billion euro turnover, there’s huge potential for local agricultural networks to get involved in the catering market.

The promise of a municipal farm is not just about keeping school lunches healthy. It’s also something that benefits farmers. Franck Kerguéris, a farmer with crops on the site of Pérenno, six kilometres from the city centre, gets straight to the point: “At my age, I wouldn’t do just anything.” The fifty-two-year-old father-of-three may be balding but he has retained the gift of the gab, and keeps coming back to his passion for farming, which he had to give up due to exhaustion and frustration, with long working days that “don’t bring home much in the way of bacon”.

In 2014, he closed his market gardening business that he’d begun on a 25-hectare family farm in Plouhinec, 40 kilometres out of Vannes, where he had been growing crops for twenty years and which was certified organic in 2000. “Being a farmer today means earning slave wages, with a million-euro debt on your back to show for it!” he says. When he came by chance upon the position advertised by the Vannes city council, the blood went straight to his head: “I knew that was missing from my life, that I wanted to get back into it.”

There were several factors that had him sold, one being the idea of giving back to the community or what he calls “knowing where my produce is going”. Until now, he had little access to this kind of market as a farmer. ”I did some work for TerreAzur [a food wholesaler that belongs to the Pomona group], which supplies several communities with fresh produce. But it didn’t last long: the conditions were impossible for a small-scale farmer.”

Working with the city council also carries more meaning for him as it’s part of an approach that makes more sense to him overall. He doesn’t deny, however, that the working conditions also weighed heavily in his decision to get back into it: “Getting paid a salary every month is huge! With a market garden, 80% of sales happen six months of the year, the other six are spent chasing up cash. But with the council, the salary is spread out over a year. It’s definitely a very interesting model,” says the man who now calls himself a “municipal farmer”.

Franck Kerguéris is not quite a full-blooded government official yet, however. Hired as a contractor under a renewable fixed term contract, Franck Kerguéris is definitely planning on sitting the French exam that would give him civil servant status as well as the security and conditions that go with it. “The full rate for a farmers’ pension is 700 euros after forty years of contributions,” says Kerguéris, unable to believe the number of holidays he’ll have to take before the end of the year. In the meantime, his monthly salary of 1,500 euros isn’t much given how much is expected of him.

By 2021, working alone, he is expected to have thirty different fruit and vegetables crops growing on the hectare of land which will soon include a 1,000 m2 greenhouse and a tractor. For now, there are still a few pumpkins growing next to the big rhubarb leaves. Like everywhere in France, summer hasn’t been easy this year, but in the end, the drought actually helped Kerguéris catch up with getting crops underway. In addition to the strawberries, lettuces and courgettes initially planned for 2019, rockmelons, watermelons, tomatoes, peppers and beans have also been added to the list. As well as providing protection against diseases, the greenhouse should also ultimately increase production, with higher yields. This will make it easier to manage the hard reality of seasonal produce, which is actually the real challenge in becoming self-sufficient. “Nature is not actually that perfect in terms of our needs: it’s when demand is lowest, with children off school for the summer holidays, that we produce the most,” laughs the farmer.

A new relation to food

In Mouans-Sartoux, the council’s answer to this problem was to freeze fresh produce, investing in freezing and packaging facilities. “Although we’re not yet producing all of our fruit and vegetables ourselves, this isn’t due to a lack of space: it’s due to the seasons. Everything becomes a lot more challenging in the winter,” adds Gilles Pérole. “But we estimate that with four or five tons of frozen produce per year, we’ll be able to be completely self-sufficient!”

Both councils agree on how important it was to make everything organic. “Even if it meant doing it ourselves, there wasn’t much discussion about this point: we all agreed that the produce should be of the highest quality, and that meant organic!” says Bérengère Trénit. As true as this may be, it also represents another demand on the farmer. “For an organic farm, this just means replacing synthetic products with labour. But this requires real expertise: keeping weeds under control, awareness of the particular weeding technique for each vegetable, etc. This isn’t the sort of knowledge that you necessarily acquire overnight,” says Franck Kerguéris. He also points out that “prices for organic produce are exploding, and profit margins are twice as much as those for conventional produce. This means that potentially more produce will be imported from far and wide. Here I can guarantee the production cost, and I can keep producing a kilo of leeks for one euro until the day I retire. This is a better deal for the community than paying three euros today and then four euros tomorrow, right?”

The municipal farm also makes Isabelle Marty’s work a lot more interesting. For the head chef at the Richemont crèche, it almost feels like a new job altogether: “Having fresh beans is completely different to opening a can… Working with all this lovely fresh produce means that we have to find new ideas for what to do with it and develop our creative side.”

On the lunch menu today is fish, salad and stewed fruit. The blackboard tells us that the salad is one of the “garden vegetables”, made with whatever ingredients come Isabelle’s way. As there was less cucumber than expected, she has made a salad out of tomatoes, sweet pepper and red onions. And it seems that the kids like it – even if they’re too young to say so. “What’s left on their plate isn’t vegetables anymore, but pasta or rice!” says Isabelle. The children also lend a hand, shelling peas and the like, which is not at all a boring chore for them. “It’s actually really important in how children relate to food. It’s not just about the taste, but also about how it feels and smells, the colours and feeling on their tongues. Preparing the food is part of the ritual before they finally get to eat!” adds Isabelle Marty.

The municipal project, however, hasn’t revolutionised the overall system of childcare cafeterias in Vannes. The same wholesalers are still working under the same contracts and still supply the meat, milk, bread and most of the fruit and root vegetables. But the price parents are paying for meals hasn’t budged either. The produce from the new municipal farm are, for now, a little bonus, an extra-special something thrown in. In Vannes, the municipal farm is, along with beehives and eco-grazing, one of the mayor’s communication strategies rather a real shift towards self-sufficiency. “We’re still a long way from our goal,” concedes Bérengère Trénit. “We don’t have enough available land, which means additional costs if we choose to go bigger. For a small town like Mouans-Sartoux, it can work, but is it really possible and worthwhile on a larger scale? It’s hard for us to say yet.”

Should food be an exception to public procurement rules?

The Mouans-Sartoux council did make it happen, finding space for its agricultural project amidst all the luxury residences and apartment buildings on the rise. The price of land is also soaring, with prices among the highest in France. The council had to get out its wallet to have dibs on the land, forking out one million euros for the land and the mansion which is now the home of the Sustainable Food Education Centre.

Then the council had to go to court and win a lawsuit against property developers and the previous owners. “We’re a pretty unusual specimen around here, with our desire to both own land and protect natural areas,” says Gilles Pérole. The town wasn’t about to stop there. In 2012, the amount of land reserved for agricultural purposes in Mouans-Sartoux’s development plan jumped from 40 hectares to a total of 112 hectares.

Gilles Pérole is not saying that organic, locally-sourced school cafeteria meals are only possible through the council-managed model: “It depends on the region and the context: in Mouans-Sartoux, the council-managed model worked well because there weren’t any producers. But in areas where producers already exist, there might be other approaches, in terms of production capacity.” The issue is food sovereignty, a term he prefers to self-sufficiency. “It’s more realistic, because this is much harder to achieve when it comes to cereals or dairy products. Sovereignty is first deciding what we want to eat, and where it comes from.”

“It’s about empowering towns and communities to wisely connect nature, agriculture and food through the powerful lever of school cafeterias,” sums up François Collart-Dutilleul, professor emeritus and member of the French Academy of Agriculture, which focuses on food security and democracy issues. In his view, the idea of making “food an exception in the public procurement market” needs to be further explored, as it represents a way of getting away from the central principle of non-local produce in communities’ supply markets.

Currently, the holy rules of competition mean that we have no choice in the matter. Under EU legislation, a product’s geographical origin cannot be a criteria in a call for tender. “There needs to be a particular regulation for food, which is not a “commodity” like any other; we don’t get a supply of tomatoes like we get a supply of pens,” adds Gilles Pérole. Alongside the professor, the councillor is planning on taking this issue to the European parliament over the coming months, advocating, for example, the idea of a certain quota negotiated with local producers: “how many times have local producers offered to sell us their courgettes and we have to turn them down, and they end up getting thrown out. The whole thing is ridiculous."

In addition to avoiding this kind of Kafkaesque situation, it’s about promoting a whole different vision of agriculture. “What if we made school cafeterias a public service?” asks François Collart-Dutilleul. “The basic right to food, recognised by the UN in Europe and in France would be reinforced. Without the WTO’s competition rules, which don’t apply to public services, nothing would stand in the way of making locally-sourced food a priority for school cafeterias. And making it a public service would be an opportunity to implement a healthy eating policy and provide education on nutrition, different food cultures, flavours and on reducing waste.”

In the meantime, these initial experiments in creating a municipal farm have inspired several other towns in France (Gonfreville L’Orcher in Normandy and Cussac-Fort-Medoc in the Gironde) to give it a go. Given the growing interest (ten councils have already shown concrete interest), Gilles Pérole intends to set up a network of a municipal farms, in order to pool skills and share feedback. Like the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, signed by Mouans-Sartoux and over 200 towns and cities across the world, the movement is part of a bigger overall shift towards a more sustainable approach to food, and is being felt on an international scale.

As France's democracy is put on hold during the coronavirus shutdown, Mouans-Sartoux, Vannes and other towns and cities in the country offer a lesson: despite what the dominant neoliberal dogmas might lead you to think, the municipal level and “good, old fashioned” public service provision can respond to the needs and challenges of today.

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