Are you more grated carrots or floating island? Faced with rising prices, the small town of Caudebec-lès-Elbeuf, in Seine-Maritime, has decided to review the meal tray for the 700 primary school students who have lunch in the canteen. Instead of the traditional five-component menu (starter, main course, side dish, dairy product, dessert), children are now deprived, depending on the day, of starter, cheese or dessert. Objective: not to touch canteen prices to preserve the purchasing power of families.
And for good reason. In one year, food prices have jumped by nearly 8%, those of energy by more than 22%, and the remuneration of civil servants was increased by 3.5% in July. Local authorities (municipalities, departments, regions), where the service providers to whom they have delegated the school catering service, are seeing their costs skyrocket. The final bill went up around 10% for local authorities, estimates Benoît Cormier, spokesperson for France Urbaine, a network that brings together major cities. In this context, the National Syndicate of Collective Catering (SNRC) has requested an average 7% price increase from its customers to meet the increase in its costs.
Some communities have therefore asked families to put their hands in their pockets. “Cities are faced with inflation and no longer have much leeway: the housing tax has disappeared and the overall operating grant has been falling for years”, justifies Gilles Pérole, co-president of the food and school catering working group of the Association of Mayors of France. The finances of the town halls, affected by the health crisis, had already had to absorb an increase in the costs of school catering in January 2021, linked to the new requirements of the Egalim law (50% so-called “quality” products, including 20% organic).
“The municipalities are well aware that the more we increase the prices of the canteen, the more we put the inhabitants in difficulty. The increases are therefore the most measured possible.”Gilles Pérole, from the Association of Mayors of France
Results : “about 50% of the municipalities” have increased the price of the canteen, according to Gilles Pérole. In Limoges (Haute-Vienne), the prices of school meals (which now range from free to 5 euros) have thus increased by 27 cents per meal on average at the start of the school year. “We had blocked prices during the Covid-19. This year, a catch-up was planned, it fell badly”recognizes Vincent Jalby, deputy mayor in charge of Education, who nevertheless underlines that this increase “does not cover that of additional costs” supported by the municipality.
At Le Mans, these were valued at 371,000 euros for the new school year, out of a total budget of 4.6 million euros allocated to school catering. Here too, prices have been revised upwards: 2% more, for prices now ranging from 0.71 euros to 5.10 euros per meal. “This corresponds to a sum between 1.50 euros and 14.50 euros additional per year per child, i.e. a fairly slight increase”nevertheless emphasizes Cécile Leroux, Education Assistant.
Conversely, “the vast majority of large towns, conurbations and metropolises do not pass on the rise in the price of foodstuffs to the prices paid by families”, notes Benoît Cormier, of France Urbaine. This is the case of Paris, Marseille, Toulouse, Rennes, Reims or Poitiers. Ditto for many departments, on which the colleges depend, and regions, responsible for high schools. At issue: greater financial resources, which allow them to save more easily on other items, believes Gilles Pérole. The Occitanie region has thus undertaken to cover the additional three million euros linked to the cost of meals, out of a total budget of 124 million euros for school catering. Ile-de-France will spend an additional 4 million euros on the billion euros devoted each year to high schools.
In Tours (Indre-et-Loire), more than half of the families of primary school children who have lunch in the canteen have even seen their bill drop. The single price of 3.35 euros has disappeared, giving way to progressive pricing (between 2.50 euros and 4.90 euros) depending on the parents’ income. The project, planned before the crisis, is timely for low-income families: “In view of inflation, we needed more social justice”, rejoices the EELV mayor, Emmanuel Denis.
But the absorption of these costs has a cost: a deterioration of the finances of the communities, a redeployment of resources or even an increase in taxes. In order to finance this increase, “we are going to slightly reduce the budget allocated to investment in high schools”, warns Kamel Chibli, socialist vice-president of the Occitanie region in charge of Education. While in Ile-de-France, the departmental council intends to hunt public policies “which no longer meet the needs”, assures James Chéron, LR vice-president of the region in charge of high schools. As for the municipalities, “the property tax may increase”warns Gilles Pérole.
Whether they pass it on to the purses of parents or pay for it, local authorities are also trying to limit the rise in prices by modifying the meal tray. In Caudebec-lès-Elbeuf (Seine-Maritime), a municipality which removed an item from the menu, the Horizons mayor, Laurent Bonnaterre, defends the decision taken in consultation with the parents: “Even at home you don’t eat a meal with five components!” The measure made it possible to increase the additional cost linked to inflation from 32,000 euros to 6,000 euros, enough to allow the town hall to absorb the increase. “The legal framework for the composition of meals is very strict”, reassures the spokesperson for the National Union of Collective Catering, Anne-Laure Decleves. According to her, removing a component is quite possible, if the nutritional intake is respected. “When we put milk in the mash or cheese in the main course, we can not offer dairy.”
Another lever in the face of food inflation: reducing the amount of meat on menus. The town hall of Mouans-Sartoux (Alpes-Maritimes) has thus gone from 40% to 50% vegetarian meals, in particular thanks to its own vegetable production. “When you cook vegetarian and homemade products, it costs half as much to produce”underlines Gilles Pérole, of the AMF, also Deputy Mayor in charge of Food in Mouans-Sartoux.
The collective catering sector is also calling for more flexibility in menus.
“Some communities require that each component of the menu be submitted six weeks in advance, which prevents us from replacing a product that has increased significantly with another”Anne-Laure Decleves, from the National Collective Catering Union
In the same vein, Limoges has chosen menus “generic”: instead of writing “peach” or “melon”, the menu announces “seasonal fruits”, which allows the products to be replaced by cheaper equivalents, at the last moment.
Last solution to limit costs: reduce waste, which amounts to 6% of the production of school canteens, according to the SNRC. In Le Mans, the socialist municipality thus asks families to warn eight days in advance in the event of the absence of their child in the canteen, under penalty of being applied the maximum tariff. The town hall has also adapted the quantities served thanks to “weighing campaigns of what was thrown away”, explains the deputy mayor, Cécile Leroux. In Ile-de-France, teenagers are invited to choose the quantity of raw vegetables they want, thanks to the establishment of “salad bars”.
Despite these solutions, the savings made do not always cover the additional expenses. “The 1%, 2% or 3% that we can earn on waste are insufficient”, assures Anne-Laure Decleves. And sOnly 5% of local authorities have increased their remuneration “fairly”that is to say up to the 7% requested by the union. “We are forced to sell at a loss to communities because legally, we have no right to cancel a public service delegation.” “We keep wanting to pay less for what we eat, we can’t save money anymore”, also annoys the manager of the Restoria company, Emmanuel Saulou. The latter considers “essential” an increase in prices charged to local authorities.
A request sometimes difficult to conceive on the side of these. “If we are not accompanied on the increases, it will become complicated”, affirms the vice-president of the Occitanie region, Kamel Chibli, who hopes that the State will review its allocations upwards. The government wants to reassure him, and recalls having launched, this summer, a “security net” to support communities “weakened by the rise in the index point of civil servants, energy and food costs”. In total, 568 million have been put on the table. An effort that is only planned, for the moment, for 2023. What about next? “We know very well that inflation will last for the next few months, even for the next few years, alert Benoît Cormier, from France Urbaine. Communities will not be able to finance meals indefinitely in place of families.