Monday, April 18, 2011

Mandatory School Lunches

by Kelley Lindberg

Last week, the Chicago Tribune ran an article about a public school on Chicago’s West Side that has banned home lunches (“Chicago School Bans Some Lunches Brought From Home,” Chicago Tribune, 4/11/11). The principal feels that kids who bring lunches from home aren’t bringing healthy choices, so now all kids are required to buy a school lunch.

However, they do make an exception for medical reasons, such as allergies.

I’m a huge believer in nutrition. So many studies have linked good nutrition with improved learning and decreased behavior problems that I find it hard to believe schools don’t make healthy nutrition a priority. I firmly believe that schools should buy and provide fresh vegetables and wholesome products (and use locally produced food when possible). I believe vending machines in schools should not serve junk food and soda, but should sell healthy snacks, juices, and water. Kids and their parents are welcome to buy junk food on their own time. They can survive without it for 6 hours out of the day.

But while I strongly encourage schools to provide nutritious lunches, I don’t quite understand forbidding students from bringing a lunch from home.

I completely understand and joyously support schools that forbid home-made treats in the classroom, for hygiene and health reasons. I like knowing that food being shared by everyone in class wasn’t handled by someone’s snotty little brother with a virus infection and poor hygiene habits. And I like knowing that food being shared by everyone doesn’t have an allergen or contamination that will put allergic kids at risk, and factory labels help minimize that.

But lunches aren’t shared with the entire class, so the infection/contamination problem isn’t as large of an issue. So it becomes a more individual choice, and less a matter of group health.

It’s true that kids who pack their own lunch can’t always be counted on to pack nutritious lunches. But I think that’s the fault and responsibility of the parents – they should be ensuring that their children make healthy food choices for the right reasons.

I don’t think requiring kids to buy a lunch at school and forbidding home lunches is going to accomplish what the principal expects, because it’s a one-size-fits-all solution that doesn’t quite fit all. The article says it appears that many of the kids buy the lunch because they have to, then throw it all away because they don’t like it. That’s a lot of wasted food and hungry kids. That didn’t accomplish anything useful for those kids, and it wasted both private and personal dollars.

Heaven knows it’s not easy being a principal, administrator, or head of a school district. And there are never any easy answers. This principal must have felt that requiring students to buy a school lunch would protect them from themselves and from the poor choice some invariably make. But I don’t think it’s going to prove to be the answer she was looking for. The right answer is probably a more flexible, and therefore more complicated one.

In my humble opinion, her decision to make her school offer nutritious lunches is great. But instead of forcing parents to buy those lunches, she should focus on incorporating nutrition education into the curriculum so that kids see the value in it, maybe add some communication to parents showing the demonstrated links between good nutrition and enhanced school performance so the parents can reinforce those concepts at home, and then let the parents and children make their own decisions, even if they are bad. That’s the point of education, after all. We train our children to face their futures by giving them all the tools we can, then stepping aside to let them forge their own successes and their own mistakes.

It’s not really a food allergy issue. The article says kids with food allergies would be exempt from having to buy the school lunch. And presumably the school would make exceptions for religious beliefs, such as kosher restrictions, allowing those kids to also bring home lunches. So selfishly, this policy wouldn’t really affect me even if my school adopted it. But I think it’s an example of someone trying to force their single “right way” onto the entire population. There is seldom a single “right way.” There are good ideas, and good intentions, but they are never as useful if they aren’t backed up by education and flexibility.

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