Earlier today I posted on my TLT Facebook fan page a story in today’s Chicago Tribune about a public school which has banned parents from sending lunches from home. I was going to leave it at that, but there’s been a lot of Internet chatter about this story, as well as thoughtful comments on my Facebook page, so I decided this issue deserves a place on main blog.
The gist of the story is that the administration at Little Village Academy on Chicago’s West Side decided that all students, except those with a medical excuse like a food allergy, must eat the food served in the cafeteria. The principal says she took this step after seeing too many lunches from home that consisted of a soda and a bag of flaming hot chips.
The principal’s observation is probably not exaggerated. In an earlier, related post here on TLT (“Right Wing Commentator on National School Lunch Program – Let Them Eat PBJ!), I quoted a WashPo op-ed by Janet Poppendieck who noted that lunches outside the federal program are:
typically not as healthy as the school lunch that met the federal nutrition guidelines, known as the reimbursable meal. According to one recent nutrient assessment, high school students who participated in the lunch program consumed significantly greater amounts of Vitamins A and B12, calcium, potassium and other nutrients than non-participants did.
Other studies have found that kids in the national school lunch program drink more milk and eat fewer snack foods, sweets and sweetened beverages than others.
While certainly some households send carefully crafted healthy lunches, far too many children arrive at school with a brown bag containing a sweet drink and a bag of chips.
So while most readers of this blog are no doubt packing exemplary lunches, it’s worth remembering that not all parents have the education, means or motivation to do the same.
Meanwhile, for a long time now, I’ve wanted to write a post about at least two Houston private schools that also ban home-packed lunches. Since I haven’t had time to do the necessary research, I’m jumping the gun here, but my understanding is that these two schools use the same caterer, and of course getting everyone to financially participate undoubtedly benefits the catering service. But having more money in the pool also improves the food that can be served, and while I believe some parents at these schools complain, I’ve also heard anecdotally that when every child and teacher is sitting down to the same meal, it can have benefits like a more cohesive environment, opportunities for informal nutrition education, and a greater likelihood that kids will try new foods. (Again, I reserve the right to correct any and all of these impressions once I’ve been able to do my research.)
But with all that said, I would go ballistic if Houston ISD suddenly prevented me from packing my kids’ lunches. It would seem horribly intrusive, and given the state of school food in my district right now (improving but far from ideal), I would probably have to take to the streets to protest. Whether I’d feel that way if the school lunch was much less processed and far more appealing to my kids, I can’t say, but that day seems a long way off.
As for TLT readers, those of you who’ve commented definitely dislike the idea of a home-packed lunch ban. Reader Bri of Red, Round or Green, wrote:
I see the WHY, but I think it’s an ill-conceived “how.” I’d never stand for it, frankly. Even if the school food were EXEMPLARY, I don’t approve of the idea that you can force better nutrition by taking all the choices out of the hands of the families. Besides, school lunch isn’t the only meal in the day. I’d be more in favor of figuring out how to work with the parents to elevate the level of their understanding about what to pack and why.
Reader and friend Anthony wondered about the inherent paternalism and classism behind the policy:
i find the intrusion on parental prerogative immensely offensive. moreso, i am bothered by the black and white approach of allowing vs. prohibiting home made lunch. what about the gray area of establishing guidelines for acceptable lunch with maybe a “not allowed” list, and when the kids are eating if a lunch monitor sees a kid with a prohibited item, just take it away? clearly there is money behind this (no doubt food service companies push for this where they can get it). but isn’t there also some paternalistic classism going on as well? i know you mentioned that this happens in some private schools, but i’ll bet this happens way more in economically disadvantaged school districts.
And Michele of Quips, Travails and Braised Oxtails observed on Twitter:
This policy doesn’t change bad eating habits, but does create a monopoly for Chartwell’s [the food service used at this school]. Who’s watching them?
I’d really love to know what the rest of you think. Leave your thoughts in a comment below.