‘We encourage you to eat differently’

‘Providing meals to schools is what I love. That’s the most meaningful thing there is. ‘ The daughter of farmers, Jeanne Collard first worked in an event catering company before switching careers to organic food … to schools. Her company now serves more than 20,000 meals a day at affordable prices. A portrait.

“If I had married a carpenter, I might have worked with sustainable wood. I ended up in the kitchen by chance, “says Jeanne at TCO Service’s offices in Ottignies-Louvain-la-Neuve, not far from the Blocry sports complex. The trained social worker from ‘deep Haspengouw’ met a chef, Christian Collard, and changed jobs to help him in his catering service for events. ‘That’s where I learned what good cooking is all about: the right ingredients. I did that for ten years and was happy, but without finding any real meaning’.

When I saw what the kids were presented with in school, my jaw dropped. I thought: there must be a way to do it right, at a democratic price.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, the couple decided to turn to public authorities and began offering their services to the Ottignies schools. It’s the first government contract they win: 500 meals a day. Just then Jeanne becomes a mother. Her sons were born in 1999 and 2002. ‘I clearly remember the nurse from Kind en Gezin who I asked what I should give my children. She said, “Give them what’s growing around here. Then forget orange juice!” “She gave me the keys. When I saw what the children were presented with at school, my jaw dropped. I thought: there must be a way to do it right, at a democratic price.”

The turning point comes a few years later, when she participates in a feasibility study on the introduction of organic goods in school canteens. Jeanne links the connection between her job as a caterer, her roots in the countryside and her year of volunteer work in organic vegetable growing after her studies in the late 1980s with pioneers in the Belgian sector. “I grew up on the field, it’s a part of me,” she explains. ‘Already as a child I was interested in the country and I have always liked to look after the kitchen garden. My parents were farmers. Harvest and beet harvest were real events for us. But my father was miles away from organic farming. He sprayed lots of chemicals. And they were convinced that it was good. I became interested in bio because I have always been a rebel. I would be the opposite. But I also found that in intensive agriculture there was a problem in reconnecting with nature. It is much more fun to work with your hands on a small scale than to water large fields with grain. ‘

Pioneers

Until then, Jeanne had followed her husband. But now she is taking the reins to steer their business in a more sustainable direction. “Without frustration, because we knew we were on the right track,” she says. “We started by using some organic products in school food. Then we focused on all aspects of sustainable food. We have made mistakes and have gone backwards because we were pioneers in this field. Some things worked, some did not. The idea is always to do your best and at the same time respect your values. Not wanting to be perfect right away and accepting that things could be better ”.

After World War II, farmers were told to produce a lot because the population was hungry and people were told that they had to eat a lot of meat to be strong. This idea has distracted us from our connection with nature.

During her pioneering work, Jeanne begins to realize that sustainable school meals require a lot of training and information. Not only for its own staff, but also for the children, the parents, the people who supervise the school meals and the organizing bodies. “We tend to think that everyone understands and follows us, but that is not true. For example, people understand that it is good to eat organic food, but if it comes from South Africa or Argentina, it affects the environment too much. And it is the environment that nourishes us. That circularity is something we have been cut off from for 60 years. After World War II, farmers were told to produce a lot because the population was hungry and people were told that they had to eat a lot of meat to be strong. This idea has distracted us from our connection with nature. I’m not saying we should go backwards, but that we should take up that circularity again. ‘

Jeanne Collard.
eat differently

“It was hard for me to understand that people did not know anymore,” Jeanne admits. ‘When I say I do not want to serve tomatoes in the winter, they understand it intellectually. But when they see their plate, it’s a different matter. ” One of the keys to more environmentally friendly food, which is not dependent on heated greenhouses or remote imports, is seasonal food. And that does not mean boring or monotonous. ‘People sometimes get that impression because they do not take the time anymore and always buy the same products. The most difficult season is not winter – with cabbage, all root vegetables, lamb salad, chicory … – but the months of April and May. Then you can let yourself go a little and eat something more exotic. Products that come further afield, but which can also be canned or frozen foods. You do not have to be a purist. ‘

Ditto for meat that is not completely banned on TCO Services menus due to its poor carbon production score: ‘We serve meat, but good, local meat and in smaller portions. In fact, we need to change our entire way of consuming. You can perfectly keep a correct price and change the board. By serving school meals with more legumes, more grains, a wider variety of vegetables and less meat, we encourage people to eat differently. But it must happen gradually. Five years ago, we offered one vegetarian dish every other week; three years ago it was one a week; and now at some schools there are two a week. We are in a slow transition. But it allows us to keep prices under control as the manufacturing sector also adapts. My idea was not to develop a big company, but to move forward step by step and change things from within. ”

Today, TCO Service serves 20,000 school meals a day in Brussels and Wallonia from 17 kitchens with a total of 120 employees. The company also aims to reduce its CO2-reduce footprints by focusing on energy, mobility, waste, etc. ‘I want to maintain the spirit of sustainable food and move forward’, Jeanne concludes. “It’s nice to see that we managed to unblock what’s blocked.”

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