The busybody war on packed lunches

A US school’s ban on parents giving their kids packed lunches reeks of ‘we know best’ condescension.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

One little school, one big furore. The Chicago Tribune reported on Monday that a school on the city’s West Side, Little Village Academy, had banned parents from giving their children packed lunches. The story soon went nationwide. ‘[W]e had no idea it would hit such a nerve’, the reporters later wrote.

Principal Elsa Carmona told the Tribune that she had created the policy six years ago after seeing children turning up for field trips with ‘bottles of soda and flaming hot chips’ for lunch. In those circumstances, she said, her new policy was designed to protect students from their own unhealthy food choices. ‘Nutrition wise’, she said, ‘it is better for the children to eat at the school’. She added: ‘It’s about the nutrition and the excellent quality food that they are able to serve [in the lunchroom]. It’s milk versus a Coke. But with allergies and any medical issue, of course, we would make an exception.’

Carmona’s school is not, apparently, alone. While the Chicago Public Schools service does not have a formal policy, other schools have imposed their own rules. For example, at Claremont Academy Elementary School on the South Side, according to the Tribune, officials allow packed lunches but confiscate sugary or salty snacks.

Carmona’s intentions may have been worthy, but the story soon blazed around the blogs, with many writers up in arms at the idea that schools should try to tell parents how to feed their kids. It seems a fairly reasonable response. School meals should be a service to parents, allowing them to know that their children can get a good lunch at a reasonable price with the minimum of fuss. If parents decide that a packed lunch would be better – on the grounds of cost, because their children are fussy eaters, or for any other reason – that should be a matter for them to decide.

Instead, school food – and the packed lunch, in particular – has been caught up in a ‘healthy food war’, with officials and health campaigners on one side demanding the right to police what our children eat, and disgruntled parents on the other side demanding the autonomy to work these things out for themselves.

Of course, teachers will no doubt be able to recount their horror at children spending lunch money on all sorts of less-than-nutritious snacks rather than on a hot meal from the school canteen, but imposing strict rules on parents is more likely to create bad feelings than prevent bad diets. Schools should be working with parents for the benefit of children, not bullying mums and dads into buying lunches they do not want.

The current row is reminiscent of earlier incidents in the UK. For example, in 2006, a 10-year-old boy was made to eat his lunch in the headmaster’s office after he was found to have not one but two snacks in his lunchbox. The headmaster declared that this was a reasonable course of action, saying: ‘We take healthy eating very seriously and everyone is aware of our new policies.’ Many other British parents have had a stern letter sent home to reprimand them for giving their children the wrong things for lunch.

As Jane Sandeman has pointed out previously on spiked, even when there aren’t specific rules on packed lunches, the whole of school life seems to have been reorganised around the need to eat healthily: ‘When I went to see an assembly that my daughter’s class staged for parents, the tour de force was six-year-old girls reading their poems about healthy eating. I found myself feeling queasy as they told us about how you must not eat fatty things, because it is important to be thin! The following week there was yet another healthy eating day which involved trying “healthy” foods. Discussing this with friends in the parents forum that I run, it was clear that everyone had their own little horror story to tell of their child’s school cracking down on contraband lunchbox items or brainwashing them about the dangers of their food.’

The irony is that while few packed lunches meet the UK national standards applied to school meals, it is by no means clear that lunchboxes are filled with masses of waistline-busting junk. The vast majority of parents would love to feed little Johnny or Mary with a low-fat salad and fruit, if only for the smug satisfaction of knowing that their kids were eating the ‘right’ thing. Most of the time, particularly with younger children, parents are often just happy that their children eat anything at lunchtime when they won’t be around to nag their offspring into clearing their plates.

The real danger of this whole discussion is not that our children will grow up fat and unhealthy because of school meals, but that children will grow up thinking that the proper role of schools is to lecture parents, not educate children.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked and blogs at Panic on a Plate.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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