Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

Mandatory school lunches

Who should decide what children eat?

I will confess at the outset that stories like this leave me riven, for what this Chicago school district has done repels me profoundly, and yet I can also understand the reasoning on which its actions were based.

A school lunch

An uninviting school lunch: Familiarity breeds contempt?
[ Image Source ]

As a home-schooling parent with a strong understanding of the principles of sound nutrition, if I sent my daughter to school, I would have her bring a home-made lunch that would provide her with healthier and more palatable foods than the dismal-looking hamburgers, anemic orange wedges and dry cookie that we see depicted above — a rather typical specimen of school lunches as we remember and repudiate them. And if the school district thought it was going to mandate otherwise, it would (as one commenter expressed it) have a fight on its hands.

But I am aware that I’m not a typical parent. A great many parents who do send their children through public school (like many who don’t) are nutritionally ignorant: One really does see children packing lunches from home that contain a surfeit of empty calories and a critical shortage of micronutrients, fiber and whole-grain complex carbohydrates. And this isn’t “now and then”; such fare constitutes the bulk of their daily nourishment, and over time it yields results with which we’re all too familiar: obesity, early-onset diabetes, and a host of other ills now pandemic in America and other industrialized countries.

The commenter who described her childhood field-trip lunch (ham sandwich, soda and Little Debbie fruit pies) is neither atypical nor reassuring. If she feeds her kids the same way, that she isn’t “fat, lazy or sick” may prove an unreliable predictor for their own future health; the more such nutritional choices are perpetuated, the more one tempts fate. Nor has she any real way to know whether, a decade hence, her health will still be so good: Many of the harms caused by poor childhood diet appear many years after the fact, and there is no dodging the prevalence of empty calories, highly refined carbohydrates, saturated and trans fats, and the dearth of vitamins in such a regimen.

Is there a simple answer to this question? I don’t see one. There may or may not be a pecuniary motive for the district’s decree; often, in real life, we find such motives coexisting with nobler ones, and can’t easily tease out where the one ends and the other begins. Lacking firm evidence, I would hesitate to make imputations of corruption or malicious intent: The district may simply be overwhelmed with children who honestly don't get good food at home.

On the other hand, the school lunches aren’t providing much real benefit if they’re so dismal that kids throw them away, as some commenters report, and as I remember doing with the less edible bits of my own school lunches; those of you who’ve tried to eat petrified orange wedges may know what I mean by this.

Ultimately, I suspect that the proper settlement must be one that recognizes the differences among parents as individuals. And this is precisely what I think will happen: Most parents will be happy to comply with the mandate, because they are already under financial stress, and this will tend to relieve a fraction of it; some may even be wise enough to realize that the foods they provide (thanks in part to their limited funds, coupled with rising costs of grain and produce and generous subsidization of meat and dairy products) are nutritionally lacking and will voluntarily instruct their children to eat the school lunches. But there will be other parents — ones more like me — who will demand and win for themselves the right to feed their children as they choose, having proven to the district officials that the food will be well chosen.

Originally published as a review of a article on a Chicago school district’s mandatory school lunch program.

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