Earlier this week, a TLT reader named Ivy Ken alerted me to a terrific blog post she wrote for the DC School Food Project, an advocacy group dedicated to improving the meals in Washington, DC.
In “Why You Should Let Your Kids Eat School Meals,” Ken argues that if all kids in her district ate school meals – not just the 76% of DC kids on free or reduced price lunch – every DC public school family would have skin in the game, and parents would start to agitate for better meals that benefit everyone.
Ken starts off by gently mocking the moms on social media who outdo each other with Pinterest-worthy, nutritionally-balanced bento box lunches, and then writes:
I’m here to tell you that you can stop the madness. Stop packing lunch! It costs money – money that Whole Foods will gladly take from you. It adds pressure to your life, as you berate yourself for not being good at it or for not kicking it up a notch and demanding that your kids do it themselves, you know, because life skills. Studies have shown that lunches packed from home are typically not healthier than lunches served at school, so that excuse is out the window too.
But the main reason to stop packing lunches is because communities have power.
Ken goes on to argue that if lunch-packing parents brought their nutritional knowledge and parental devotion to the cafeteria, it would:
. . . help every kid in DCPS feel that love and taste that delicious food.
That’s what all our kids deserve.
They need your advocacy. When they come home on Day One and say lunch was disgusting, call DCPS and SodexoMagic and tell them. (Or email us at email@example.com and we’ll tell them.) When DCPS and SodexoMagic do not improve meal quality to the level you think it should be, join together with other parents, teachers, and students to make collective demands. You have that right! You have that privilege. You have that responsibility.
We need you, parents. We need you to put the lunchbox down, walk slowly away from the kitchen counter, and demand that the taxes you have already paid for the lunches that are provided at your kids’ school be put to the best possible use.
In principle, I couldn’t agree more.
Full participation in a district’s meal program would not only stimulate advocacy, it would also bring in more revenue to invest in better food. And while Ken wants parents to speak out at the local level, her proposal might also raise their awareness of the deeper issue: Congress’s chronic and shameful underfunding of federal school meal programs. So while Ken imagines DC parents calling up their district, my own fantasy takes place on Capitol Hill, where throngs of parents brandishing lunch trays would finally start holding their elected officials accountable on this critical issue.
But here’s how I know there may be a problem with Ken’s proposal: Even while I was actively pushing for better school meals in Houston ISD and publicly sharing all my efforts here on TLT, I still packed a lunch every single day for my own two kids. I never hid this information from my readers, even though I knew some might call me a hypocrite for opting out of the very program I was trying to improve. But I was willing to endure that potential criticism for the sake of my kids’ daily nutrition.
Ken is correct that home-packed lunches are generally less nutritious than school meals, but those statistics take into account all home-packed lunches, including those consisting of a can of soda and a bag of chips. It would be disingenuous to say that parents with adequate means and some nutrition education can’t do better than most schools. Maybe not on a nutrient-by-nutrient basis, but definitely in terms of offering fewer highly-processed foods.
And while I was never a very creative lunch-packer, I also recognize that for many parents, thanks to social media, the home-packed lunch has lamentably become more than just a way to feed one’s kids. It’s also come to signify parental devotion, culinary skill, artistic ability, socioeconomic status and more. (See: “Lunch Packing as a Competitive Sport?“) I just don’t see the bento-box set trading in their heart-shaped sandwich cutters for the still-mediocre processed fare offered in many public schools.
So I think we have no choice but to acknowledge the deep emotions that motivate many parents to pack a lunch. Yet Ken is right when she says we need to raise their awareness of what’s going on in the cafeteria and why it matters.
I’m not sure how we do this, but maybe one approach is showing these parents what school meals could look like, if only the program were better funded. Maybe we share photos of superior school meals in other countries – not in the pointless and misleading way I excoriated in “Why I’m Fed Up With Those Photos of ‘School Lunches Around the World,” but in a meaningful way that would inform and inspire parents to demand better? Or maybe we need to highlight the beautiful school food in progressive districts here at home, the ones with superstar school food directors and, very often, outside funding from organizations like the Life Time Foundation or the Orfalea Foundation.
Would that approach spur their interest in advocating for better meals in their own district and nationwide? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that most lunch-packing parents would happily forego that daily chore in favor of handing their child a meal card – if only they liked what they saw in the cafeteria. The trick is to harness that sentiment and turn it into political action.
Thanks to Ivy Ken for alerting me to her excellent post, which got my own wheels turning. And if you have thoughts to share, I’d love to hear them! Just leave a comment below.
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