Friday, 16 September 2011

The red tape of food allergies in French school (or going gluten free at la cantine)

 There are many things I've learned about recently, that I really wish I didn't have to know. One of them is how to deal with family inheritance since my husband's grandmother died over a year ago and we inherited parts of various houses. Now that that's settled, the powers that be have thrown me another French administrative barrier to tackle : my daughter's gluten intolerance.

I haven't mentioned it on my blog, but Max is lactose intolerant which I noticed when he was weaned from breast milk at a year old.  But Suzanne has complained about stomach aches since she was able to speak. After various treatments for worm infestations, inconclusive stool samples and lots of gas, the doctor said that it seemed like a gluten intolerance and the only way to check was to cut out gluten, not an easy feat in the land of the baguette.  He asked if it was worth it since her discomfort didn't seem to outweigh the hassle of cutting gluten. It wasn't until just before her 5th birthday last May that we took the plunge. One day she came home from school and said to me, "My stomach used to hurt and not hurt and hurt and not hurt (ie cramps). But now it doesn't stop." The next day, I declared war on gluten.

Any vegetarian in France will know that having a "special diet" in France is nearly impossible. Unlike in the US where people are über-sensitive to people's special needs, the French treat it like they do most things : it's not worth it unless you are willing to jump through hoops, speak to endless numbers of rude people on the phone and get an official written consent.

Yes, dear blogosphere, I am currently fighting with French administration so my daughter can bring a rice cake to school for snack. Ridiculous? Yes it is...

It's called a P.A.I. - Plan d'accueil individualisé (here's the official text). In fact, we are going through the same administrative process a physically handicapped child would go through in order to attend a public school. From what I've understood, the only way we can get an ok for Suzanne to eat special food at school once in a while (since she's intolerant and not allergic) is if there is someone available at school who can prepare the food I've provided in a tupperware and make sure that she actually gets it. I guess they haven't heard of all the millions on kids in the US who go to school with their lunch boxes every day and have no problem feeding themselves.

Granted, there is something reassuring about the fact that someone will make sure my daughter will get her gluten free food on the days the school is serving pasta and not rice. But why all the red tape? Why can't a note from the doctor suffice?
Last week, I called the mairie who told me to speak to the school director who told me to call the centre medico-scolaire which is a special place with a doctor who is specificially there for the school. I tried to call yesterday ALL day long and the phone rang. and rang. and rang. and rang. I was understandably frustrated that anyone calling this place is so unimportant that there is no voice mail and no receptionist. At one point, I let the phone ring for 5 minutes until someone finally picked it up and hung up on me!

When I finally got someone on the phone, I kind of wished I hadn't because she was so damn rude. She told me to call back, but then relunctantly took my phone number. Then called me back 30 minutes later and left the following message : I can give you an appointment on the 28th at 10am. Then 3 minutes later : I need Suzanne's birthday. Rappelez moi.  No hello. No name. No politesse at all. Rien. Just two rude messages. When I called back, the unnamed woman (was she the doctor? I hope not...or just the receptionist) repeated  the same date. When I told her it was difficult since I worked she said, "Madame, c'est vous qui demandez un PAI." Um, yeah, I know...but how about some flexibility or even a little bit of humanity?  So I asked if I needed to bring any papers. She said that I needed all of the pieces of her dossier. I said I didn't have any because there were no tests run, just the fact of taking gluten out of her diet. Her reply? "Il vous faut toutes les pieces de son dossier". Of course I repeated that she didn't have a dossier. But, in stereotypical French fashion, there was no way to cut the red tape : if you need a dossier, you need a dossier. Usually in these circumstances, I say something like, "I'm foreign. I'm having trouble understanding. Can you speak more slowly?" which usually knocks them down a notch. But I was so frustrated but this bitch-on-wheels that I just hung up on the verge of tears mumbling bitch under my breath.

When I got off the phone and recounted the story to a co-worker, she offered to call and ball out the woman. It was tempting but no. When I told my husband he said that people like that need to be denounced...which I plan to do when I see the doctor.

Next step, we are meeting the doctor in two weeks. To be continued...

Here are a couple useful links about gluten intolerance in France and PAI. For food allergies, social security actually partially reimburses part of the special food.
Getting gluten free food reimbursed
Assosciation Française des Intolerants au Gluten


L said...

Having worked at the university for 2 weeks now, I kind of see how it's possible to get like that rude woman. They don't pay anyone to work July and August, which means we're overloaded in September, which means we have 2 minutes top for your question... Sorry you're getting the run around!

And there is at least one school in France that lets kids eat food from home on their own at lunch: the private Montessori school where I used to work. I guess it helped that the daughter of the directrice refused to eat almost all the school lunches and wanted pasta with ketchup every day.

Reb said...

Private school is a bird of a different feather. The good news is that this morning I told Suzanne's teacher that we were putting a PAI in place and she was very sympathetic, told me to talk to the guy in charge of the cantine and we needed an official note. It didn't seem like any big deal to her.

And L, don't become one of those bitchy, disgruntled, fonctionnaire type people...

laura said...

Hi again,
I thought I just posted a comment but I don't see it now. So sorry! Anyway, really just wanted to introduce myself because your blog is really helpful--we are sort of contemplating a commute from London a few days a week and are curious about Lille. I've lived in France before so I have some idea how it would be but your blog colours in a lot of nice details. Best wishes, Laura

Reb said...

Hi Laura, Thanks for visiting my blog. Lille is a very livable city. The quality of life is much better than much larger cities and the Lillois are very warm and welcoming. Plus, there are free public bilingual schools. Yay! If you want more info about lille or have an specific questions, leave a comment here or send me an email. Reb

laura said...

HI Reb,
Thanks for answering! I can't figure out how to send an email, but mine is I don't suppose you know anyone who commutes to London? Thanks again for your wonderful blog. Our sons are also bilingual, and it is nice to read about your experiences. Best wishes, Laura

Anonymous said...

Hi Reb!

It's Rachael and I'm not in Lille anymore but I just popped by your blog.
Get the doctor's note and it should be fine. Even in private schools, you need a doctor's note in order to allow kids to eat their foods. A classmate of M's lost a huge amount of weight the first year he ate at the cantine, so the dr gave him a note.
As a vegetarian in France, I could tell you some stories.
Good luck and I hope Suzanne's tum doesn't hurt anymore!
And good luck with storytime! Well done! I know there's a bilingual section of a public school in Lille (Ecole Marie Curie?) that's just starting up -- I know they were looking for teachers in the spring....

Reb said...

Hi Rachael, I hope your "new" life is going well. The hardest part was getting the appointment with the school doctor. BEsides the fact that she was a bitter middle aged woman who obviously doesn't like her job, it was ok. Bringing special food to school for Suzanne on a need to basis is fairly easy, just a question of organization on my part. And a question of remembering to get my plastic containers back!

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