Italian school lunches go organic, low-cost, local

Photo caption: An Italian girl in Rome eats gelato, one of the undisputed joys of visiting Italy but unlikely to be recommended under the new, school-based Gaining Health program to promote nutrition and local produce. (Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's note: Italy and France are at the forefront of European efforts to promote nutrition and exercise in schools, according to GlobalPost contributors in Rome and Paris. Read about French efforts to combat the beginnings of a U.S.-style obesity epidemic and a return in Italy to market-based grocery shopping.

ROME, Italy - Britain's Jamie Oliver pulled off a nutritional coup when he launched his School Dinners program there, with a healthy amount of financial support from the U.K. government. The celebrity chef was, however, reduced to tears when trying to convert American students to similar healthy eating patterns. 

Oliver would have had it much easier in Italy.

From this month, Italian students will lunch on fresh, local and organic foods, while learning about the country's culinary traditions. By celebrating the "Mediterranean diet" in school cafeterias, Italy has joined the global fight against rising obesity rates in children.

Under a program dubbed “Gaining Health” — which stems from 2006 agreements between the European Union and the World Health Organization – Italians are also leading the way in Europe in improving school cafeteria standards, going far beyond the mere improvement of school meals.

Last April, the Italian Ministry of Health issued its own set of guidelines to prompt organic food consumption and promote a zero-mile approach, which is to source food locally, to school cafeteria menus. The ministry took inspiration from pockets of hyper-conscious cafeterias scattered across the peninsula. Rome’s region of Lazio, for instance, provided some cutting-edge models.

In Marino, a picturesque, hilly town in the Roman Castles Region outside Rome, school officials have designed a meal program that relies heavily on organic food, residents’ feedback and local government support.

Renato Bernardi, chef and father of a third grader, manages the cafeteria service for Marino’s entire school district. At least 50 percent of all his ingredients are organic.

Bernardi’s minestrone boasts organic pasta and greens picked in local fields. Chicken cutlets arrive from certified Italian farmers only four hours away.

“We are looking around to see who among our local producers will be able to supply the ingredients we need to implement a zero-mile diet,” he said. “Although, finding local ingredients for 1,600 meals a day is quite a challenge.”

Each meal always includes two main courses, a vegetable side dish and fresh fruit. It costs Marino families 3 euros (or $3.85) a day per child. The municipality pitches in with an extra 1.50 euros to cover the total cost.

“Because the city doesn’t seek profits, it can re-invest the money that families pay, entirely on the food we serve to children,” Bernardi said.

Marino’s families make sure of it. Bernardi meets with a parent committee three to four times a year,  shows them his recipes and leads tours of his kitchen. In return, the committee can suggest adjustments based on feedback from their children.

“That’s how Italy is. It often happens that parents who send their kids to public schools pay more attention to what their children eat rather than what they read,” he said.

However, Bernardi said, for obvious reasons not all of the children’s requests can be considered. Italian law forbids cafeterias from serving deep-fried food. That includes potato chips, french-fries, and even fried chicken, entrees that many American schools are still fighting to remove from their menus.

The Italian Ministry of Health is also recommending that teachers write in elements of nutrition into their lesson plans. When the guidelines came out, it was a no-brainer for Bernardi, who happens to be married to a dietician.

“Last year, I was already teaching a weekly class on the Mediterranean diet,” he said.

Bernardi taught them the difference between cereals and legumes, why some vegetables are green, others red and what the difference is between eating fish and red meat. Some 600 children learned that the nutrition pyramid wasn’t just a diagram, but a hard-and-fast rule to be followed.

By introducing children to their culinary traditions and history, Italy hopes to set the pattern for healthy habits in adult life.

Today, one in three Italian children under 12 years of age is overweight. Although these rates are far behind those of the United Kingdom, United States and Mexico, Italy is working hard to reverse the trend.

Rome school district with its 150,000 children, and a cafeteria budget of 140 million euros (or $180.5 million), has already pushed the boundary of healthy food to even greater heights.

If there is one city that has done the most to shape the Ministry’s guidelines, it is Rome. The city served its first organic menu in late 2007.

“The Mediterranean diet is about to become part of UNESCO intangible cultural heritage,” said Rome councillor Laura Marsilio, head of the education, family and youth department at Rome’s City Hall. “We want to promote it."

With the help of the high-end chef Angelo Troiani and a team of nutrition experts, Marsilio proposed the first menu inspired by Italian regional cuisine.

“I believe the children will have the opportunity to understand that Italy is a unique mix of rich differences,” she said.

Each month, Rome’s school menu offers food that you could easily find in any typical trattoria.

March offered a Tuscan veggie soup called “ribollita,” beef chops simmered in Chianti wine and olives and a fresh side of fennels. April came with Liguria’s pesto ravioli and veal-rolls with peas. May was Naples’ month, with tomato and mozzarella “pizzaiola” pasta, Sorrento-style scallops and sautéed zucchini. The new academic year will begin by paying homage to Sicily.

“This is an investment on our children’s health,” said Marsilio. “And a learning opportunity.”

Rome’s school district provided each class with posters describing the regional menus, with references to the different traditions and local folklore.

In the Eternal City, 70 percent of all food served at school cafeterias is organic. Ingredients come from 400 Italian organic farms, one-fifth of which are located in the Roman countryside and Lazio.

Each meal costs about 5 euros (or $6.40), but this is subsidized for low-income families. With its bigger budget, Rome can afford to cover most of the costs, charging families only 2 euros per meal (or $2.60).

But Marsilio, the sporty, 40-year-old who is also a mother of two, intends to raise the bar.

“This year, we’ll also send menu suggestions to the families for their children’s dinner,” she said.

And perhaps taking a leaf from Michelle Obama's White House gardening book, schools in Rome might see gardens producing fruit and vegetables in their backyard soon. Indeed, on the First Lady's recent official visit to Rome, the mayor launched a project for the first city garden, though the details remain vague.

In the Meantime, Marsilio said to expect school gardens to sprout up over the coming academic year.