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do principals know better than parents?

Posted by on Apr 12, 2011 in Blog Posts | 38 comments

There’s has been quite a furor over the story about a Chicago school forcing all the students (barring a note from the doctor) to eat school lunches. That means the parents are not allowed to pack lunch for their children.  The goal is, “to protect students from their own unhealthful food choices.” Apparently the principal gets to decide. Here is another example of a policy, “officials allow packed lunches but confiscate any snacks loaded with sugar or salt. (They often are returned after school.) Principal Rebecca Stinson said that though students may not like it, she has yet to hear a parent complain.” (See my recent article about misguided school wellness policies.) What’s next, lunch monitors making “fat” kids take skim milk, or shame them about what they are eating? Pushing the “skinny” ones to eat more?

As a parent, I would flip out either way. M gets great lunches, and she occasionally gets treats that would surely “fail” their standards. As a feeding specialist, I am disappointed. Missed opportunities, and pressuring, not supporting kids to be competent eaters.

The other day I was packing M’s lunch, I had cut up strawberries and mango, hummus and carrots, ham with a little miracle whip (rolled up) and about 1/4 bag of cheetos that was left from Subway over the weekend (we’ve been eating out a lot while our house is on the market and we get those last-minute calls for showings…) I am still thrilled that she has learned self-regulation, and can incorporate “forbidden” foods and can stop when she is full. I very purposefully include a variety of foods in my planning. Occasionally she gets a chocolate, or a “fun-size” bag of Skittles, or a Starburst…

You can bet your bottom dollar I would complain. I have complained. My daughter’s schools have tried similar intrusions, and luckily they have backed off.

It shocked me that this school has been doing this for six years. It doesn’t sound like it’s going too well. The motives feel very coercive to me, not supportive. I don’t know what the quality of the meals are, but it doesn’t sound like they are cooked from scratch. A child should have an option if they don’t like the main entree (or you get stuck only serving pizza and mac n cheese and chicken fingers.) If you are going to do hot lunch, there needs to be some choices, including bread and butter so a child can at least eat something. It sounds like pretty heavy-handed stuff.

I do recognize that many parents have trouble planning balanced meals for a variety of reasons, that many families do pack lunches that are less “nutritious” than school lunches (I can’t remember the study, but over 2/3 failed, and I can pull it up when I get home if folks are curious.) (I’m hiding out at a coffee shop while our home is undergoing inspection :) It all comes around to how kids are fed. Parents reliably pack foods they “know their kids will eat.” Picky eating effects nutrition, but in some ways, the parents are onto something. It’s better to eat SOMETHING than nothing. I also wonder about the teachers and staff. Are their meals similarly policed? Are they forced to eat hot lunch?

This is a pretty disjointed post, with lots of threads. Did any of it resonate with you? What are your thoughts?

(Thanks to my readers for forwarding this article! Keep sending your tips, I love it!)

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38 Comments

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  1. MrsH

    Ugh that is outrageous. I do let my daughter buy lunch once a week because she likes choosing something from the line. The first 6 months it was pizza every time, now she more often goes for the salad or main option. I think that sometimes, as a parent, it’s hard to even remember that you have a choice about such policies. If it’s “just the way it’s done” when you come into the school it’s hard sometimes to wrap your brain around an alternative. I hope other districts don’t start modeling their policies after this school!

  2. Camilla

    I bet there’s a different reason for this: it’s much easier to get a contract with a lunch vendor, if you can guarantee them a captive audience. (And the per-meal cost goes down, too.)

    Enough parents probably appreciate the cost of the meal being low that they’re willing to avoid rocking the boat for it.

    (I’ve seen – from a distance – a few iterations of this at the university I attended – mandatory meal plans make for more and better bids from meal contractors.)

    • katja

      great point. Follow the money is always a good place to start.

      • Camilla

        Banning snacks among the home food may also facilitate the administration in squelching an informal economy – they seem to have left themselves free to confiscate anything desirable.

        I have something of a mixed view of informal economies; if I’m a kid in the system, I’d rather there be one than not, but from the teacher or parent perspective, the informal economy may be loosening your grip on the motivators, distracting the students, or leading to the disadvantaged kid being exploited.

        • Camilla

          I also want to point out that my explanation doesn’t strictly require the adults to be mercenary about it.

          I was aware of the issue from hearing student groups ask “why is [vendor] serving expensive bad food, and keeping short hours – why can’t we have the dining hall open until [whenever] like [nearby institution]?”

          Which are valid questions… and the answer really was that our institution couldn’t negotiate a better bid, without imposing a mandatory meal plan. It’s possible that sweetening the deal for the vendor, by guaranteeing sales, was in order to get better rather than cheaper food.

          • katja

            yup, that’s what another reader brought up. Follow the money!

          • KellyK

            That makes a lot of sense. If that’s the case in this particular school, I would much prefer they be up front about it than insult kids and parents by saying they don’t know how to feed themselves/their kids.

        • katja

          interesting!

  3. lyorn

    I think its disgusting, yet still I wish I had had something as reasonable and moderate as compulsory school lunch as a kid. Because my mother felt I was fat, I didn’t get food to take to school. If I hadn’t had my own money (and the possibility to earn more), I’d have gone ten hours a school day, plus 25 km bicycling with no food. We had no school lunches anyway because the school felt that, as afternoon classes weren’t compulsory (unless you wanted to graduate, that is), there was no need.

    Shows that nothing is so wacky that there cannot be worse.

    Being always hungry is horrible. It makes you slow, irritable and stupid. But it also makes you sneaky and distrustful. I very much wish that all kids who are starved in the middle of plenty develop enough sneakiness to feed themselves and keep quiet about it.

    • katja

      that is so outrageous and abusive, and makes me so angry for little-kid you. I agree but am so sad that kids need to be sneaky to have their hunger needs met… Odd school set-up, that afternoon classes were optional. Schools and parents first need to provide and nurture and stop worrying so much about depriving.

  4. Anne

    I pack my son’s lunch the same way. Most of the time it’d pass the food police muster – but occasionally I’ll drop in a couple Oreos, or (usually after Halloween) a fun size candy, etc. If his school ever told him he couldn’t eat them, or told me not to send them – oh the fur would fly :)

    Everyone has made excellent points, and I particularly agree with Samantha’s comment about cost. Forcing parents to spend $15 or so dollars a week on hot lunch, money they could probably use elsewhere – including buying better food at home – just seems counter intuitive to the whole reason they’re (supposedly) doing this (i.e.: healthier kids).

    And frankly I think the whole students bringing “flaming hot chips and soda” for lunch is a strawman argument. And she’s talking about field trips. I know I tend to pack my son more pre-packaged food when he goes on a field trip because they usually require kids to bring something disposable – instead of the reusable containers I normally pack for everyday lunch.

    • katja

      all great points! Wish more parents would lose some fur over these battles. On my facebook page I linked to a blog about a high school AP class where the teacher required the kids to write their BMI on the board AND earn extra credit by losing 10% of their BMI in 2 weeks. Insane. I would be marching on that school, pitchfork in hand…

  5. Dawn

    This reminded me of a parody that was going around homeschool circles a few years ago that was funny because it was *so ridiculous* but apparently it’s not as ridiculous as we all thought. Here’s the parody:

    Homefeeding Children: Threat or Menace?
    By Lydia McGrew
    CNSNews.com Satire
    June 12, 2002

    The recent tragic death from malnutrition of seven-year-old Johnny Marfan of Bensonville draws our attention to the growing trend toward so-called “homefeeding.”

    While the majority of the local children still receive their nutrition from state cafeterias or approved, registered private
    cafeterias, a growing minority of parents – hundreds by some estimates – are engaged in homefeeding, a practice in which children receive at least breakfast and dinner in their own homes as provided
    by their parents.

    In accordance with law, the Marfans informed the state health department that they were homefeeding Johnny. But in this state, homefeeding is relatively unregulated, giving carte blanch to parents to feed their children virtually any food under the sun; meat, milk, cookies, butter, pie – anything goes.

    Some states require parents to have a certified degree in nutrition or at least be monitored by an accredited nutritionist. But here, parents do not even have to fill out periodic reports detailing what they are feeding their children.

    Opponents of homefeeding argue that parents like the Marfans used homefeeding as a cover for abuse and neglect, with terrible results. While this remains in question, we’ve seen nothing to disprove this.

    Calista Nicole-Carson of the state Department of Cafeterias and Caloric Monitoring says, “I realize that there are conscientious parents who genuinely try to feed their children what they need. But they should have no objection to filling out the forms we are
    introducing, describing each of the meals they give.”

    That seems a reasonable step in safeguarding our most precious resource – our children. “Pro-active steps are necessary to insure we are protecting all children,” says Nicole-Carson. “It is ridiculous not to monitor what all children are fed because of a misguided concern for ‘privacy’ or ‘freedom,’ and such lack of regulation allows children to slip fatally through the cracks.”

    Other critics are concerned about parents’ lack of necessary qualifications. “Every year we make new nutritional discoveries,” says Dr. Sue d’Panzoff of the University of Omasota. “Parents cannot possibly keep up with each breakthrough in nutritional science and
    give their children these benefits.”

    It’s preposterous for us to leave such vital functions to amateurs who claim authority based on something as flimsy as parenthood, particularly in the realm of keeping pace with nutritional advances.

    “Who knows what changes we may need to make next year to improve children’s nutrition,” asks d’Panzoff. “At a minimum, homefeeding programs must be carefully monitored in the domicile to make sure all
    the latest advances are represented.”

    Still others point out the social skills homefed children are missing. Ms. Nicole-Carson tells us, “During meals at the public cafeterias, these children watch educational videos about crucial subjects like the environment, sex, and the evils of capitalism. The
    food itself is culturally diversified, and each day the children are taught a different set of table manners from another culture around the world.”

    Homefeeders rely in large part on outmoded history in defending their decision to place their own children out of the mainstream.

    “As recently as 1992, the majority of children in the United States were homefed,” says Philip Flicka, of the right-wing Home Food Legal Defense Association. “Even when kids went to school, they were
    allowed to bring lunches packed by their moms.”

    Whether Mr. Flicka is right or not, it seems that homefeeding is here to stay, consequences be damned. But we cannot be too vigilant.

    Homefeeders of good will should, as Ms. Nicole-Carson says, be entirely open to having their homes and programs monitored by qualified nutritionists for the good of our children.

    Any small amount of time and privacy this costs parents will be more than repaid in lives saved. If the Marfans had been properly monitored, Johnny would still be alive.

    There is nothing more valuable than the life and safety of a child, and for that reason, strictures on homefeeding must be tightened in this state.

  6. The WellRounded Mama

    I’m just stunned at this article. Required to get a school lunch? OMG. Talk about your nanny state. Gees!

    I had all of the concerns Twistie pointed out above, but she said them so well I won’t reiterate it other than to note my agreement.

    I would just say that I think what I pack my kids from home is FAR more nutritious and better than what I’ve seen of most school lunches. Even if this program is better than most, it’s still going to have a fair amount of mass-produced cheap processed food. I can do way better than that from home. I know all parents won’t meet that standard but it’s insane for schools to be interfering like this and second-guessing every bite kids put in their mouths.

    As parent, it offends me to have interference like this. Leave the parenting to the parents. Make healthy lunches available cheaply to kids and then let the parents make the choice.

  7. Samantha C

    One of the other things I’ve seen brought up about this policy is the cost. School lunches can get really expensive really fast – by this policy, families are required to shell out the $2-3 per day for the hot lunch if they don’t qualify for a reduced-price or free program, rather than having the option to pack PBJ or last night’s leftovers or food bought in bulk or any other method of saving money.

    That’s just on top of the severe irritation of assuming that the school knows better than the parents. And the fact that “healthy” school lunches are often defined by how few calories they have. And the difference in any given elementary school system between what’s appropriate food for a 5-year-old and a 10-year-old or older. Junkfood Science has a ton of articles on school lunch, I’m just reading them over again and getting depressed.

  8. KellyK

    Another point about the only “out” from a school lunch being an allergy or a medical issue. Not only does it appear to ignore religous/ethical/cultural reasons, but not every biological reason not to eat something is going to come with a doctor’s note. If a kid’s had an upset stomach and they don’t want dairy products that day, why should they need a doctor’s note to have a different beverage or a meal without cheese or even to eat nothing but white rice for lunch if that’s what they feel physically okay with? If it’s some minor bug, odds are, they weren’t even sick enough to stay home, let alone go to the doctor.

    Part of learning how to eat is paying attention to how different foods make you feel. But, to do that, you have to have some choices and have your preferences honored. Not necessarily be catered to, but have some options.

    • katja

      absolutely!

    • Jenny Islander

      Yes, this. It is all too likely that some preteen will be picking at her plain rice or eating the crackers instead of the soup because she’s getting over stomach flu–and then some grown-up will decide that she has an eating disorder and start the machinery turning.

      Or what about the kid who is just plain cold today? Who wants the pizza, but not the carrot sticks or the milk, because the pizza is hot?

      Or the kid whose parents can cook, so he/she can’t stand school cafeteria slop?

  9. Twistie

    From the article I read, the only way the kids could avoid eating the school lunch would a doctor’s note about allergies or other medical conditions. If the article was accurate and I read it correctly, that means there would be no exceptions for philosophical or religious reasons, which strikes me as unconstitutional. What about kids from vegetarian/vegan homes? Children who keep Kosher? Observant Muslims? It’s certainly not a medical necessity to avoid pork or only eat halal meats, but it’s a violation of freedom of religion to refuse to respect religious dietary restrictions. And it’s certainly unacceptable to force a vegan to eat meat and dairy.

    I’m appalled in general by this entire concept, but it horrifies me that there seems to be no option for the free practice of religious belief in this idea.

    Oh, and I’m an omnivore and an atheist, so my ox ain’t the one being gored here. I just believe in respecting personal choice and belief, even when it completely disagrees with mine.

    • KellyK

      Excellent, excellent point. Religious and ethical restrictions are just as valid a reason to not eat something as allergies and medical issues.

  10. KellyK

    I thought of you when I read this article yesterday–I knew you’d have a post on it sooner or later.

    I think this school is really overstepping its bounds. I also wonder about the logistics of making every single kid go through the lunch line. Are they really getting enough time to eat, or are the kids at the back trying to cram food into their mouths in the last five minutes of the lunch period?

    I think that an individual parent pretty much always knows more about what their kid can/will/should eat than a school lunch program trying to feed every child. Between allergies and other negative reactions, preferences, appetite, metabolism, food ethics, etc. etc. etc., what’s appropriate for each kid is going to be dramatically different.

    • katja

      yes, they could do a lot to support eating competence. Longer lunch time, adults eating with the kids, options…

      • unscrambled

        Then you’d have to trust kids to learn, to self-regulate, and to be human beings with autonomy. But, our culture just doesn’t believe that about anything related to kids. Reminds me of the whole ‘Free Range Kids’ thing–we don’t even trust kids to walk a block without getting Killed By Unnamed Evil Force, how on earth could people be trusted to put food in their mouths?

        • katja

          I have literally heard doctors and “feeding experts” (the authors of a childhood feeding therapy method) say that children and adults are “not capable” of self-regulation, and that if “we don’t teach them portion sizes, who will?” Oh Boy.

      • Jenny Islander

        This baffles me. When I was a kid, there was always at least one grown-up eating in the lunchroom. Lunch was main dish, two veg, some kind of fruit, and milk; on special occasions you could choose between the regular main dish and a hot dog. Not a burger. Burgers were too messy and time-consuming to cook for lunch. Did I mention that everything was prepared hot on site? Anyway, you had to take what they gave unless you brown-bagged it, but you could ask for a lot or a little of each item, except for things that had to be served by the piece, such as bananas. How much you ate was your business. Teachers only interfered if they saw some kid trying to trade out his lunch for all sweets (because that kid would be a jittery disruption all afternoon) or if somebody was making a mess or being a bully or a pest. And nobody worried about wasted portions because the kitchen staff took home the leftovers. Somebody got to eat the food: therefore it was not wasted.

        That blog where somebody eats school lunch every day and photographs each meal is appalling. When and where did it become okay to serve kids prepackaged meals that look worse than the stuff they used to serve on airplanes? Who exactly is being served by this?

        • katja

          ah, hot on site! The ladies eating the food too! No interference from teachers…Sounds wonderful! Those school lunches looked atrocious, eh? Thanks for sharing.

          • Jenny Islander

            The thing is, it seemed to be working perfectly well! The food was cheap, basic stuff, basically what you would find on the table for a big family at home, and making it wasn’t rocket science. We ate a lot of casseroles, spaghetti with sauce, sometimes bowls of hamburger soup (a very thick soup that didn’t slop over easily). No hamburgers, as I said above, but sometimes grilled cheese sandwiches–probably because grilled cheese sandwiches didn’t spatter and they could be arranged very close together on the big griddles. Vegetables were served plain from the can. We got fruit cup, canned applesauce, bananas, apples or oranges if they were cheap that week. Sweets were pans of pudding or brownies from a mix, sometimes chocolate chip bar cookies or sheet cake, occasionally big rectangular pies. Pots, griddles, and pans, and not a lot of complicated work. Older primary students even got to help in the kitchen if they had good report cards.

            How did the above become too hard?

          • katja

            to jenny’s comment below… I don’t know when it got so hard. My guess is stricter health and nutrition rules, and particularly having to document them? I don’t remember our servers wearing gloves, or checking the food temp with thermometers… equipment cost? I am guessing the lovely story of the lunch ladies taking left-overs home would be strictly verboten these days.I am going to go over to junkfoodscience and read the school lunch stuff sometime, that might give us a clue.

  11. Carol Gwenn

    Outrageous example of “Big Brother knows whats best for you”!

    Excellent question, by the way, asking if the teachers’ brown-bag lunches are subject to the same scrutiny as those of the students. Would really LOVE to have an answer to that. Also, WHAT ABOUT THE PRINCIPAL? Is she chowing down on salads and grilled breast of fowl or is she, like the (pretty slender) leading lady on “The Closer”, sitting in her office with a drawer stuffed full of sweets? Would really be interesting to know just what that woman’s own eating habits are.

    As I’ve commented before, your approach is so sensible, so REASONABLE and logical…is it any wonder that so many people just don’t get it?

    • katja

      i agree. I don’t know why people don’t get it…It’s counter-cultural right now to spread the trust message…