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Two farmers hold the halter ropes on two cows eating hay on a city street.
Farmers protest in front of the city hall in Lyon, France, on February 22.
Olivier Cassingnole/AFP via Getty Images

A French city announced it would serve meatless school lunches. The backlash was swift.

Lyon’s move to a veggie diet for students — and the protests that followed — reveals how enmeshed meat-eating has become with cultural identity.

The push to end meat consumption has become one of the more urgent causes of our time — and one of the most politically fraught. As advocacy against meat-eating has ramped up, with activists and consumers citing its harm to animals, workers, and consumers, so has the backlash. It is the latest flashpoint in what seems to be an all-encompassing culture war.

That war’s most recent front: Lyon, France’s third-largest city and the country’s gastronomic capital.

In February, Grégory Doucet, the mayor of Lyon, announced that the city’s school cafeterias would temporarily stop serving meat every day. That edict sparked a local backlash. Farmers rolled out tractors to occupy city hall, and government ministers accused the mayor of harming children.

In March, Lyon’s administrative court dismissed a petition by meat producers, right-wing politicians, and some parents to ban the meatless menu, saying that it “doesn’t create risks” for children. The schools will be serving non-meat dishes (though fish is allowed) until Easter, or even longer.

Those who took issue with the change accused Lyon’s mayor of pushing his environmental agenda onto kid’s plates, but he actually had a practical reason to get meat out of the city’s 206 schools: to speed up food service and make it easier to comply with social distancing rules during the pandemic. A single meatless dish, the thinking went, would be a compromise to the tastes and beliefs of all — be it picky eaters, vegetarians, Muslims, or Hindus.

Farmers blocked the center of Lyon with their tractors on March 25 in protest of the mayor’s meatless menu in schools.
Laurent Cipriani/AP

Despite that rationale, the mayor’s foray into meatless policy ended up getting sucked into a broader culture war around meat and vegetarianism. This may seem like a very French story, but meat — both in France and around the globe — is not just food; it is also a powerful cultural force and, as such, can be very divisive.

Last month, when Colorado’s governor simply suggested residents cut out meat one day in March, state legislators and neighboring governors urged their constituents to eat even more meat. That was just the latest skirmish in a long-running battle in the US over an issue that has become deeply polarized — and polarizing.

And now the culture war over meat has broken out in Europe. The Lyon controversy underscores the challenge facing the movement to reform our food system: How do you change hearts and minds when something feels so entrenched in one’s cultural identity?

The importance of food and meat in French culture, explained

To understand what’s happening in Lyon, it’s important to grasp the role that food — and meat — plays in French culture.

Food is central to France’s conception of itself, and in Lyon especially, which is home to 17 Michelin-starred restaurants. School cafeterias are thought to have a larger mission than to simply nourish bodies; they exist to create French citizens.

“That is the republican dream: the idea that wherever you come from, we can give you the conditions to succeed — and the cantine is part of it. It’s a place to create equal opportunities,” says Romain Espinosa, an economist at the University of Rennes who researches plant-based diets.

The traditionalist viewpoint is that to become truly French, children should learn French food culture at school. That’s why pupils’ lunchtime is something of a ritual here: a full hour of appetizers, main dishes, desserts, and, yes, cheese platters — a far cry from the United States’ pizzas, burgers, and fries.

In France, children as young as 3 years old participate in cafeteria events where local cheese producers present their various artisanal fromages. They learn about terroir (unique environmental factors influencing the taste of foods) and are introduced to dishes from various parts of France, from Normandy mussels to the bouillabaisse, a fish stew from Provence.

In general, Espinosa says, France, just like Italy and Spain, has a very strong food culture. This is a country where you can find butcher stores that date back to before the American Constitution, a country that awards golden medals, with great fanfare, to not just wines but also baguettes, butters, and sour creams.

A pork butcher showing her sausages in Lyon in 1998.
Gianni Giansantiy/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Customers eat a traditional morning meal named “machon” inside a “bouchon” typical restaurant in Lyon on October 23, 2020.
Phillipe Desmazes/AFP via Getty Images

Such traditionalism — and the culinary habits it breeds — has its benefits. The French snack far less between meals than Americans, have lower rates of obesity, and consume far less sugar.

Yet it also has downsides, none more so than a powerful reluctance to any change regarding nutrition — meaning reluctance to reducing meat consumption and giving up on traditional meat dishes.

That reluctance was on full display when Lyon’s mayor announced his plan to make the city’s school meals temporarily vegetarian; livestock producers brought — along with their tractors — cows and goats to city hall, and protested with banners claiming that “eating meat is the basis of humanity.”

French media exploded with disputes among top government officials: The minister of the interior called the decision “an unacceptable insult to French farmers.” The minister for ecological transition said the conservative politicians’ arguments were “prehistoric.”

The minister of agriculture, Julien Denormandie, called for everyone to “stop putting ideology on our kid’s plates” and, instead, feed them meat that they “need to grow well.” For what it’s worth, France’s food and environmental agency, ANSES, has stated that eating vegetarian once per week is perfectly fine for children, while the American Dietetic Association says that “well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle,” including childhood.

Conservative voices were quick to declare that for children from impoverished families, school lunch is the only chance to eat meat and get enough protein. That might have been correct several decades ago, but today such claims are “entirely false,” says Laurent Bègue-Shankland, a social psychologist at the University of Grenoble, pointing out that in France low-income households consume more meat than the wealthy. If anything, 98 percent of French kids don’t get enough fiber, something that eating more vegetarian foods would help achieve.

Meat and the culture wars

The outcry from farmers over Lyon’s meatless school meals is also, in large part, about social identity, a battle of the city versus the countryside — somewhat similar to the urban/rural, liberal/conservative divide in the United States.

In France, vegetarianism and veganism are often portrayed as lifestyle choices of “bobos” (bourgeois and bohemian): left-voting, well-off urbanites who are thought to misunderstand the realities of rural life. The bobo’s promotion of vegetarian diets, the thinking goes, isn’t just a social and cultural affront — it could have material consequences as well, leading French farmers to financial ruin.

This discourse has similar undertones to the 2019 “yellow vest” protests in France, which started with a proposed fuel tax, seen as particularly unfair to struggling countryside dwellers who rely on cars for commuting, while rich Parisians don’t even need cars to get around their city of 302 metro stations.

But these disputes over food aren’t just happening in France. In Denmark, an initiative to establish two vegetarian days per week in state canteens was scrapped soon after its introduction. In the UK, parents in farming communities destroyed a “meat-free Mondays” idea in schools.

The US has seen even more of these skirmishes break out, often in explicitly political settings.

In 2018, Sen. Ted Cruz quipped that if Texans elected Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat, to the Senate, he’d ban barbecue. In 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and President Trump sparred over hamburgers amid arguments over the Green New Deal. During Georgia’s Senate runoff campaign, Republican David Perdue mocked his opponent (and now senator) Jon Ossoff for eating a plant-based burger, saying he’d be having Waffle House’s “all-star special” (two eggs, toast, waffles, grits or hash browns, and your choice of bacon, sausage, or ham), and directly asked Georgians to “pick your side.”

And last month, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis declared March 20 “MeatOut Day,” intended to raise awareness of the environmental and health benefits of eating less meat and more plant-based foods. In response, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts declared March 20 “Meat on the Menu Day,” and Wyoming’s governor made a similar declaration.

The importance of making plant-based food better — and a choice

These battles in the larger culture war show that policymakers and advocates should be intentional about how they frame the discussion around meat. While vegetarians and climate activists might be eager to enact broad policies to curb meat consumption, such moves might only backfire and inspire greater opposition given how enmeshed meat is in cultural identity.

An example from a couple of years back is instructive. When in 2019 France introduced an experiment (which ends in October 2021) to offer children a vegetarian option at all school cafeterias, the outcry was not as heated as it is now in Lyon. It was likely because the vegetarian meals were often offered as a choice, and called “the green menu” to avoid terms like “vegetarian” or “meatless.” It worked well: Now, when a vegetarian option is offered, it’s picked on average by 30 percent of students.

Espinosa suggests that other small nudges along these lines could also be effective, such as offering the vegetarian option before the meat option.

Offering a genuine choice also seems to matter. When the 2019 law was introduced, it was met with opposition in some places because the choices given to children were bland and not particularly healthy — omelets with cheese, highly processed soy burgers — a poor substitute for France’s usually elaborate lunch dishes. The reason? School cooks didn’t know how to prepare meals without meat.

That is now changing. The government started providing recipes to cafeteria chefs and offering training.

What’s working in France aligns with what researchers at the World Resources Institute (WRI), an environmental nonprofit, recommend in order to nudge diners to choose more plant-based foods. WRI has conducted several studies and has concluded that, to no one’s surprise, just making the food really delicious is key to getting diners to eat more plant-based foods.

But WRI also recommends creating appetizing dish names, spotlighting the flavor and provenance of a meal, and not labeling it as vegetarian — or even as healthy. Think “Cuban Black Bean Soup” instead of “Low-Fat Vegetarian Black Bean Soup.”

Sidestepping the culture wars for a more rational food system

Nudging our way to a more rational food system may not feel ambitious enough, especially when we consider how big of a role a shift to plant-based foods can play in countering climate change. But heavy-handed policies in that direction also threaten to activate identities around meat-eating, potentially sabotaging those efforts.

That presents a real challenge for climate, animal welfare, and public health advocates, who need to think more about how to sidestep diet-as-identity, rather than stoke it. The recent squabbles in Colorado and Nebraska demonstrate the consequences of failing to account for the role meat plays in culture, especially in such ag-heavy states.

As for Lyon, it’s unclear whether vegetarian food has survived the culture war, but it has at least survived this recent skirmish.

Since the farmers’ protest, Lyon courts have upheld Mayor Doucet’s meatless menu.
Olivier Chassingnole/AFP via Getty Images

After the court’s decision to uphold Mayor Doucet’s meatless menu, protests in Lyon fizzled out. The farmers packed up their tractors, goats, and cows and went home, while the media turned their attention elsewhere.

But the children of Lyon are still eating meatless dishes in school every day. This week’s menu includes quenelle, a typical Lyonnaise dumpling with Provençal sauce, with oyster plant “au gratin” on the side, and honey cake for dessert.

If it’s as appetizing as it sounds, children can learn that vegetarian food can be delicious, and that a less meat-centric diet need not spell the end of the culture in which they grow up.

Marta Zaraska is the author of Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession With Meat and Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the current mayor of Lyon. Gérard Collomb left office in 2020; the mayor is now Grégory Doucet.

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