By Johnny Cotton
PARIS, Oct 14 (Reuters) - A team of officials from the United States visited a French primary school on Tuesday looking for tips to promote healthy eating from a lesson teaching children how to appreciate good food.
With a fresh croissant on each desk and a pen in hand, the class of eight and nine year-olds were encouraged to use their five senses to examine the pastries at length and describe the experience, as the delegation looked on.
The pupils in the Paris suburb of Roissy-en-Brie were taking part in a three year-old government program to promote food awareness and healthy eating in schools, and had previously carried out similar taste tests on bread and cheese.
The Director of Food Management in New York City for public schools, Stephen O'Brien, said he and colleagues -- representing cities including Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles -- had much to learn from France's "premiere culture" for food.
The stakes are higher than promoting refined palettes. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, (OECD), the rate of childhood obesity in French children is under half that of the United States.
"I do think that by teaching food culture in schools you can tackle the adverse effects of over-eating, obesity, sodium, all of those things that are becoming chronic throughout the world, not just in the United States," O'Brien said.
"These students will remember this lesson for their whole lives."
But will the students really take the time to size up and sniff their evening meal after school because of these occasional "taste classes"?
"When the children go home in the evening, do they think about a lesson about verb conjugations or vocabulary? I don't know," said head teacher Yannick Choulet.
"I'm not revolutionizing family lives, that's not the point. But what I want to teach is curiosity, pleasure at the table, that's something fundamental."
While the health benefits of an afternoon spent munching on croissants might be marginal, Choulet said that other school projects, including promoting eating fruit at break times, can have a real impact on health.
The government is keen to celebrate France's foodie culture, with the "gastronomic meal of the French" on the list of the "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity" drawn up bu the U.N. culture and education agency UNESCO.
"Today what's been done in France can be an example used elsewhere so I think that we have a special feature, a culture. It has to be promoted, looked after, and developed above all, and that all happens with children," Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll said at a giant taste class at Paris's town hall surrounded by children wearing paper chef hats.
Although online parenting forums are peppered with gushing posts about the diverse eating habits of French children, the picture is more complex.
O'Brien pointed out that obesity rates in the United States have actually stabilized if not started to fall, while the OECD says that obesity in French boys, at least, is on the rise.
As far as pupil engagement is concerned, though, the benefits are clear.
Sitting up next to the whiteboard, Anne-Florelle agreed it was more fun than an average French or Maths lesson, and finished her croissant before any of her neighbors.
"We're eating, and I love to eat!" she said. (Editing by Crispian Balmer)