Would Banning Packed Lunches at Schools Produce Healthier Kids?

by Joanna

I do not know about the rest of you, but when I was in elementary school, my mother made the choice about what sort of foods I should be eating.  Even though over the years, my own lack of discipline has caused me to become fat, as a child, my mother made sure that I went to school with healthy foods and that I ate balanced meals at home. Yes, we had the occasional indulgent snacks, but by and large our diet was healthy. The thing is, it was our parent’s choice as to what we could and could not eat.

But today, some want to take the choice of what to feed children away from the parents and leave it up to the schools to determine what children should be eating.
At his public school, Little Village Academy on Chicago’s West Side, students are not allowed to pack lunches from home. Unless they have a medical excuse, they must eat the food served in the cafeteria.

Principal Elsa Carmona said her intention is to protect students from their own unhealthful food choices.

“Nutrition wise, it is better for the children to eat at the school,” Carmona said. “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 said she created the policy six years ago after watching students bring “bottles of soda and flaming hot chips” on field trips for their lunch. Although she would not name any other schools that employ such practices, she said it was fairly common.

A Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman said she could not say how many schools prohibit packed lunches and that decision is left to the judgment of the principals.

“While there is no formal policy, principals use common sense judgment based on their individual school environments,” Monique Bond wrote in an email. “In this case, this principal is encouraging the healthier choices and attempting to make an impact that extends beyond the classroom.” SOURCENow, first, let me say this. I applaud any efforts by schools to make healthier choices available to their students. But, I am vehemently opposed to any sort of policy that forces a child to only eat the food available at their school. Ultimately, the choice of what to feed a child belongs with the parent, not school administrators. While I do not believe it is in the best interest of a child to send them to school every day with a lunch bag full of chips and sweets, I also do not believe that a school needs to be in control of what goes into the bodies of its students.

I believe that most parents, given the option, will choose healthier foods for their children. The problem is that access to healthy foods is limited for many parents due to income and lack of education about nutrition. So, rather than restricting a child’s choice to bring food from home into school, why not provide educational programs for parents that would enable them to make better choices when packing their children’s meals? Why not push to make healthy choices more affordable and available rather than restricting choices during school hours?

To me, forcing a child to eat a meal that the school deems appropriate during school hours does nothing to enhance the nutrition of that child when outside of school. Educational and financial support programs are far more effective in insuring proper nutrition than regulating what a child can eat for one meal a day, 180 days a year.

Of course, what it really comes down to is money. For every child that eats in the school cafeteria, the district receives a certain amount of money from the federal government. So, the more children that are forced into eating school lunches, the more money ends up in the pockets of the school district and the vendors that provide the food. And, it does not matter that many of the children would rather go hungry than eat the lunches that the school supplies.
At Little Village, most students must take the meals served in the cafeteria or go hungry or both. During a recent visit to the school, dozens of students took the lunch but threw most of it in the garbage uneaten.

Though CPS has improved the nutritional quality of its meals this year, it also has seen a drop-off in meal participation among students, many of whom say the food tastes bad.

“Some of the kids don’t like the food they give at our school for lunch or breakfast,” said Little Village parent Erica Martinez. “So it would be a good idea if they could bring their lunch so they could at least eat something.”

“(My grandson) is really picky about what he eats,” said Anna Torrez, who was picking up the boy from school. “I think they should be able to bring their lunch. Other schools let them. But at this school, they don’t.” SOURCEI also think that policies that force a child to eat only food that the school provides causes the child to become turned off by good nutrition. There are so many options for healthy foods, but the meals provided by schools are often terrible tasting. Is forcing kids to eat food that tastes awful but is “good for them” really the answer to combating obesity and poor nutrition?

Again, I believe the answer lies in educating students and parents about healthy food choices AND in teaching them how to make choices that are not only good for them, but that taste good as well. A lifetime a good nutritional habits will be the developed by teaching families how to eat and cook healthy options, NOT by forcing children to eat food that tastes awful just because it is “good for them”. After all, is it beneficial in the long run to have children believe that healthy and tasty are never compatible? Because forcing kids to eat food that they find unpalatable will lead to precisely that mindset.