Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lunch Bans

A few years ago, when I went on a field trip with Kevin's class when he was in elementary school, I wrote about how one student was so determined to have a treat from the forbidden vending machines that she hid a pack of Skittles in her bra.

Kevin's school was part of a pilot project teaching kids about healthy food choices and exercise, which was, as a whole, a great idea. But there were times when I took issue with the messages my kid was coming home with. In my house, sugar is not evil. It's a treat to be consumed in moderation.

Lunches are, in my house, packed with care. I plan ahead what will go in them. I specifically bake for the week, freezing things to tuck in so that Kevin can have a treat to enjoy to make his day a little better. School is not a fun place for him, and so I make lunch as enjoyable (and healthy) as I can.

Which is why this article about a Chicago school banning lunches from home makes me shake my head.

I have worked in schools for almost 20 years, from kindergartens to grade 12, in rough inner city schools to tiny schools out in the middle of farmland. I have been in over 100 schools spanning 3 districts. A big part of my job has always been supervising lunch, so I feel it's safe to say that I've had a LONG time to observe lunches and see how various schools and districts handle things.

Banning home lunches is something that would make me, as a parent, CRAZY. I can't get on board with something like that and if I worked in a school that insisted on implementing such a policy, I'd be a loud and vocal opponent for a number of reasons.

Firstly, we live in a free country. I resent anyone telling me what to feed my child. My child, my food, my responsibility. Period. Nobody knows my child as well as I do, or how he needs something with no red food dye or msg, and how he's sensitive to lactose, soy, and corn. I don't trust someone who is making money off what my child eats to CARE that he eats healthy.

Because what really disturbs me is this:

"Any school that bans homemade lunches also puts more money in the pockets of the district's food provider, Chartwells-Thompson. The federal government pays the district for each free or reduced-price lunch taken, and the caterer receives a set fee from the district per lunch."

I wonder, if the money factor was removed, if it really would be about health, or if that excuse is used to force people to pay for the school lunch that puts dollars in the pockets of big corporations? I don't want corporations cooking my food. You shouldn't either.

Secondly, what about the ethnic population? Isn't denying them what they would normally eat going to affect their own food culture? I used to work with Japanese students who brought the most interesting bento boxes, sushi, and other things. In one school Punjabi kids brought delicious curries. It was very interesting to fellow students to see what their friends brought from home and taught them a lot about different cultures in the process.

Thirdly, I know that they say kids with medical issues can present a note from their doctor and they are exempt, but really? What about kids with sensory issues? Picky eaters? Children who have a difficult time with any unfamiliar food? Why would we make it more difficult and have them go hungry rather than allow them to eat something familiar?

Oh, but some are saying, what the kids are used to is bad for them. It's full of fat, sugar, and salt.

Yes. Yes it is. But we live in a free country where people have a choice. If someone wants to eat a 1000 calorie milkshake made with ice cream and strawberry syrup with 65 different chemicals, they have that option. If someone wants to pack a can of Coke into their child's lunch, they have that option. But having choice, be it good or bad, is what makes us free.

The very same rights that allows a parent to pack a can of Coke into their child's lunch allowed me to send a chocolate bar with Kevin on an all day downhill skiing trip. I NEVER send chocolate bars in Kevin's lunch. This was a one time treat, brought on by the fact that he would be outside expending enormous amounts of energy, and as a growing boy who tends to crash from low blood sugar, it was an emergency snack to get him over a slump if he needed it. Anyone who has spent a lot of time outdoors or skis and scuba dives knows that a chocolate bar that is packed with nuts is a great pick me up.

Kevin's teacher wouldn't let him eat it. He doesn't need the sugar, I was later told.

My response?

Get your hands OFF my kid's lunch box. Sugar isn't evil. In moderation, it's fine, and I want to be the judge of where the line is. Sugar doesn't make my kid hyper, and I resent someone imposing their own beliefs onto my child about his lunch. If they want to see hyper, I reasoned, I'll send in a can of Coke and THEN they'll get a taste of hyper. (the caffiene would make him crazy!)

I never did have the guts to send the Coke, but I sure was tempted.

What bothered me most was the mixed messages Kevin was receiving. Home made brownies were criticized, but Dunkaroos were ok? Juice was bad, even though he was lactose intolerant and that was the only juice he got? The staff would say he couldn't eat the chocolate bar, but they ate doughnuts in the staff room? Messages were sent home when he didn't eat all his lunch. What about not being hungry? At one point, because a fellow student disliked the smell of fish so much and Kevin brought tuna, he was discouraged from bringing even a tuna sandwich on whole wheat bread.

I swear I almost burst a blood vessel I was so irritated. Already the school was nut free, and coupled with Kevin's sensitivities to dairy, MSG, Red food dye, corn, and soy, I was practically pulling my hair out in frustration. The sad thing was that at that time, it would've been easier to pick up a Mr. Noodle cup and send that to school than to try to find something that was actually healthy, and nobody would've said a word. (edited to add: I have never, nor would I ever, buy those things. They are gross. But the irony, huh? School promotes healthy food and yet I could send in a Noodle cup over a tuna sandwich and actually get LESS flack for it?)

Not only that, I wouldn't accept the messages that he was coming home with. Yes, we need to eat healthy. However, we also need to listen to our bodies and stop eating if we're full, and practice moderation with treats. Treats are not bad, they are just treats. The last thing I wanted was Kevin turning out like an elementary school friend of mine who was never allowed to eat anything sugary or processed at all, and eventually resorted to literally breaking into the neighbor's house occasionally to eat their Froot Loops.

No joke. True story.

I wanted him to listen to his body, know how practice moderation, and have a healthy relationship with food and it was so weirdly ironic that I was fighting against a school healthy living program that was supposed to be on my side.

This healthy relationship with food, it seems, is what's missing. People are never satisfied anymore. Instead of a small ice cream cone at Disneyland, you get one the size of your head. Soup and salad at Chile's restaurant is enough to feed a family of four. Nobody knows how to enjoy one small serving and then be done with it. Instead of a small portion of pop, you see kids downing whole liters. Even Starbucks is said to be coming out with a drink larger than a venti.

Who the hell needs that much latte?

Banning lunches is, at best, a band-aid solution. It doesn't solve the problem in the long run, but rather is a cop out to make things easier for the school. If there needs to be long term change, then educate those parents. Plant a school garden. Teach the kids to cook. Blitz the curriculum with education about food and where it comes from, what's in it, how to be healthy. Teach portion control. Show kids and parents how to have a healthy relationship with food-ALL food. Teach the parents how to pack a healthy lunch. Set the example by making sure that all food provided by the school at functions is healthy.

The only thing anyone learns from a ban is how to sneak around it.

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