Penn Student Looks at French Lunches With an Eye to Improvements Back Home

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Media Contact:Madeleine Kruhly | | 215-898-1435August 9, 2013

University of Pennsylvania senior Elizabeth Hyde has spent the past two months in Paris to observe and evaluate a much-appreciated element of French culture: the meal.

In preparation for her honors thesis and supported by the Gelfman International Summer Fund, Hyde is working to pinpoint the differences in French and American school lunches. On her return to Penn, she’ll continue the research with mentors Paul Rozin, professor of psychology, and Jarrett Stein, director of academic partnerships at the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative.

The researchers are hoping to assess Eatiquette, a school lunch program run by the Vetri Foundation that has been implemented in four Philadelphia charter schools. Eatiquette closely resembles the experience of the traditional French cafeteria, including freshly prepared food, multiple courses and a single meal choice.

“There is a big emphasis on the communal aspect of eating in French dining,” Hyde says. “Students are encouraged to try new things in the company of their peers.”

Rozin agrees, noting that, although French food may not necessarily be better, “the way the French integrate food into their life, combine it with sociality and enjoy it is better.”

A major in psychology and French, Hyde, who is from Colorado Springs, became interested in nutrition education while working at the Urban Nutrition Initiative as a sophomore. She also studied abroad in Paris as a junior, which motivated her to pursue the project with Rozin and Stein.

“By last fall, I had become interested in the role culture plays in shaping individuals and specifically the aspects of French culture that make it so unique,” Hyde says.

Since returning to France this summer, she has observed a cafeteria in Paris as well as a middle school in Aurillac, the latter of which she visited with graduate student Valerie Adt, who studies fellowship between students in French cafeterias at the Centre Edgar Morin.

While in Aurillac, Hyde interviewed children and school cooks and observed lunchtime interactions between students. She noted the children’s food choices and the time it took them to find seating, also registering the noise levels in different corners of the cafeteria and the relations among students during recess.

Hyde says that these observations will allow her to identify specific components of French dining and then determine the differences in national approaches, which she hopes will highlight areas for improvement.

“There are several key questions that I’ve been focusing on, such as, does the sociality of the French cafeteria contribute to a supportive environment in which students can try new, healthy foods?”

She plans to research whether the nutritional content of the dishes prepared on site have positive results, which Hyde hypothesizes might include a cooperative-dining experience. She will also investigate the students’ knowledge of meal preparation as well as the range of options they are offered at home.

Hyde notes that, although the schools she has visited vary in demographics, there are certain similarities to the provided lunches.

“The food is handed to the children pre-portioned,” Hyde says. “There are multiple courses and a long break, and the students all tell me the importance of eating a balanced diet and recite what they’ve seen on posters and in advertisements.”

Although she admits that both gaining access to the schools and translating her interviews have proven tricky, she is eager to bring her observations and her hypotheses back to Philadelphia.

“I would love it if there were specific components of the French system that American schools could adapt to encourage healthy eating,” Hyde says. “And maybe that’s as simple as nothing but water as a drink and the single-choice menu posted in advance.”

In the fall, Hyde will continue her research as she begins to look more closely at Eatiquette and the Vetri Foundation with Rozin and Stein. She also intends to remain involved in Penn’s Positive Psychology Center, where she currently works.