The state has no place in the lunch bags of a nation -

The state has no place in the lunch bags of a nation

Schools everywhere are stripping away the freedom of students, and parents, to make their own lunchtime decisions

The state has no place in the lunch bags of a nation

Sean Kilpatrick/CP Tim Boyle/Getty Images

What’s the difference between school and prison? Not much, if you listen to your kids.

Lately, however, it seems adults have been going out of their way to reinforce this grim connection. In the name of fighting obesity, schools everywhere are taking away the freedom of students, and parents, to make their own lunchtime decisions.

Last week, the Chicago Tribune documented the peculiar and controversial food policy of the Little Village Academy on Chicago’s west side. Bagged lunches have been banned: every student is required to eat lunch in the cafeteria. The reason? Principal Elsa Carmona doesn’t trust parents to pack a proper lunch. “Nutrition-wise, it is better for the children to eat at school,” she told the newspaper sternly. Exceptions are only made for allergies or similar medical reasons. Other Chicago-area schools apparently inspect their students’ lunches and confiscate food deemed unhealthy.

Mandatory cafeteria meals. Confiscation of tasty contraband. Throw up a guard tower and some searchlights and the prison motif would be complete.

Of course this sort of nutritional tough love is not confined to Chicago. In September, Ontario will enforce a strict new food policy in all of its schools—fried food of any kind will be forbidden, meaning cafeterias will no longer be able to sell hamburgers or french fries. Eighty per cent of all meals must consist of fruits, vegetables, whole grains or other healthy options; only 20 per cent of the menu can include processed or higher-fat items such as bagels or cheese.

Quebec already has a strict food policy in place. Other provinces, including British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and New Brunswick, have similar school food guidelines. All this lunchtime dirigisme is driven by concerns about observed rates of obesity among North American children. But will these new rules really produce healthier students? Remember, these are teenagers we’re talking about.

However much we may wish for teenagers to make healthier choices at lunchtime, bans on french fries and other lunch staples seem unlikely to produce a massive increase in fruit and vegetable consumption. Such rules are far more likely to add to the daily exodus of students already fleeing school at lunchtime.

Anecdotal evidence abounds that students eat at nearby fast-food outlets and convenience stores when denied their choice of food in school cafeterias. In New Brunswick and British Columbia, school food sales dropped noticeably following the imposition of new lunch guidelines. These kids do not go hungry. They find ways to escape their food prisons. Regardless of official pronouncements or good intentions, the demands of teenage stomachs will not be placated by whole wheat bean sprout tofu wraps.

Groups advocating strict school food rules are starting to recognize the unintended consequences of these policies. But their proposed solutions are equally impractical and draconian. Last year, for example, the Alberta Policy Coalition for Cancer Prevention demanded that municipal governments use their zoning powers to “protect student health by limiting the availability and accessibility of unhealthy food and beverages in areas surrounding new schools.”

The revised strategy is thus: outlaw favoured foods at school, then outlaw those same foods within walking distance of school. This desire among lobby groups for absolute control over all aspects of food choice should be considered a worrisome trend by students and adults alike. Eating remains a personal responsibility, not a government mandate.

It also bears mention that unhealthy weight gain—in teenagers or anyone else—is the unhappy combination of too much eating and too little exercise. And high school students are getting noticeably less physical activity in school. According to a 2007 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the percentage of Ontario high school students enrolled in phys. ed. fell from 70 per cent to 60 per cent between 1999 and 2005. Focusing solely on food choice ignores the direct role schools have played in other aspects of fitness.

To be successful, any efforts to improve the eating habits of schoolchildren must recognize the practical implications of the policies themselves. Frightening kids away with food bans is no solution. Neither is forcing them to eat in cafeterias against their will. Schools should find ways to convince students to choose cafeteria food based on taste and convenience—and health benefits—but not through coercion.

It is also important to acknowledge—and emphasize—the role parents must play in helping their children make healthy choices. Ensuring all kids benefit from a proper diet is a matter for the family, not the authorities.


The state has no place in the lunch bags of a nation

  1. School cafeterias should provide healthy food. There should not be Coca-cola and other pop vending machines in schools. Many MacDonald's and other trash food outlets have strategically positioned themselves within a block of a high school. City zoning bylaws could prevent that. It's better the state has some control over what is fed to children, than big business.

    • So what you are saying is you have missed the point of the whole article, and believe that nanny-state rules are the solution to all problems?

      • Do you believe we should allow a hog-rendering plant to set up shop next to your house? How about a sour gas processing facility next to your kids school? Zoning laws are not uncommon, and often based on far more nebulous things than preventing obesity and poor health in our children.

        In a society where healthcare is our largest single public expenditure, where childhood diabetes rates are starting to sky-rocket, it makes sense to pass legislation aimed at prevention of poor health. The cost to ethical businesses is minimal.

        Will it be an absolute solution? Of course not. But it's certainly a step in the right direction.

    • Students unite! Refuse to participate in the institution. Walkout, form a picket line, demand pizza, coke, and candy. United, students are too numerous to punish. You control your bodies, you have free will, throw off the shackles of the nanny-state. Eat a burger.

      • They've already eaten six. That's kind of the problem.

        • Very old person……..again, another great comment!!

  2. Megan: Let's start with the first. If there's one thing that everyone in America knows, it's that being fat is really unhealthy. Why do you call it a fake problem?

    Paul: The correlations between higher weight and greater health risk are weak except at statistical extremes. The extent to which those correlations are causal is poorly established. There is literally not a shred of evidence that turning fat people into thin people improves their health. And the reason there's no evidence is that there's no way to do it." Paul Campos interview, The Atlantic, July 2009

  3. "It's the classic pattern of moral panics. As public concern about the damage being done to the fabric of society by the folk devils increases, increasingly intense demands are made on public officials to "do something" about the crisis, usually by eliminating the folk devils.

    That of course is the strategy for this crisis. If fat people are the problem, then the solution is to get rid of them, by making them thin people. The most amazing aspect of this whole thing, for me, has always been the imperviouusness of policy makers, and even more so people who consider themselves serious academics and scientists, to the overwhelming evidence that there's no way to do this.

    I mean, there's no better established empirical proposition in medical science that we don't know how to make people thinner. But apparently this proposition is too disturbing to consider, even though it's about as well established as that cigarettes cause lung cancer. So all these proposals about improving public health by making people thinner are completely crazy. They are as non-sensical as anything being proposed by public officials in our culture right now, which is saying something". Paul Campos interview, The Atlantic, July 2009

  4. Nova Scotia just brought in legislation banning outside food at schools. At the same time the province PAL/CLM as a required course because it was deemed 'too costly'.

    When I was in Junior High School the principal banned chips, fries, and penny candy replacing these childhood staples with unsalted pretzels and plain yogurt. The entire study body walked out and picketed in front of the school. The students won, the principal lost her job and chips, fries, and penny candy were brought back.

    I suggest that any students fettered by nanny-state regulations just walk out and demand change. It has worked and will work.

    • And if they can't muster the energy to walk out, they can always waddle.

      • Very old person……you are the best!!!

  5. Let's see: schools are unable to control drugs, teenage sex, and violence. They can't control dropouts; they can't graduate young people who can fill out a job application properly or spell in anything other than iPod-speak. What makes them think they will be any more sucessful at controlling food choices – or should be? This is intruding too far into the rights of parents to raise their children. What's next – government inspection of our grocery carts and snap audits on pantries?

    • Let's see: schools are unable to control drugs, teenage sex, and violence. They can't control dropouts; they can't graduate young people who can fill out a job application properly or spell in anything other than iPod-speak. What makes them think they will be any more sucessful at controlling food choices

      I was with you that far, and then you veered off into the ditch. But up to that point I do think you hit on the best and most defensible position.

      • You're right. Hyperbole for the sake of making a noise. I'll have to watch that!

        • I'm guilty of that about 700 times a day.

  6. "What do you think the priorities of those writing the licensing standards for the feds will be?" You must be a student, I need to ask and answer rhetorical questions. The licensing standards will reflect the needs of the global "authorities"… you know the same guys screwing up our food supply. btw where do you think your thoughts feelings and preferences come from?

    • "btw where do you think your thoughts feelings and preferences come from?"

      The iluminati? The Bilderbergs? The tinfoil industry?

      • Frito-Lay?

  7. Well maybe ‘nanny’state’ism wouldn’t be required if there was a way to make it so it’s financially doable for someone to stay home fulltime to cook every day.

  8. In the late nineties, my high school cafeteria made the absolute BEST coke slurpees and french fries, and we had a 7-11 and McD's right next door that we were seldom tempted to walk over to. I didn't have a weight problem, and neither did the vast majority of my classmates… even at the tender age of 16 or so, we *did* have a modicum of intelligence and self-control, and I have to think kids today aren't that different than we were then.

    • Wow, a voice of common sense….. thank you!

      I do have a weight problem, but it has nothing to do with what was available in my high school cafeteria. Most of my friends were exposed to the same choices and they never struggled with weight.

      it's a complex problem that is not going to be solved by simplistic solutions — the only kind any government is available to create and implement.

  9. I absolutely think that schools have a responsibility to promote healthy eating habits by providing healthy eating choices. There is no good reason to have a daily supply of junk food on site. It used to be a treat at a school picnic or party, not everyday that you'd get junk food. However, forcing me to buy cafeteria food instead of briging my own food is too much. Schools don't need to provide bad food for students, but really have no place to over ride personal choice and parenting.

    • Jacko, I agree with you 100%! We want the best education for our children in schools so why should we expect anything less than the best (healthiest) foods in the cafeteria/vending machines/canteens?? It should be up to the parents to decide whether or not their child gets junk food, not the schools, teachers, or lunch lady. Growing up, having junk food was a treat not the norm. Now-a-days, it seems like having fruit or vegetables is a treat and not the norm!!

  10. we don't do junk food in our house and i don't want them doing it at school
    i make the rules about food in my house
    when they leave home,after graduating, i assume, then they can eat what they want
    while i am their care giver, i will not give them a choice to eat unhealthy food forlunch in a school cafeteria

  11. Schools educate by the choices they present. Students are going to receive a clearer message about healthy eating if the food available in school reflects what they learn in health class.

    This article seems to imply there is something wrong with wanting our young people to learn to enjoy the taste of eating healthy food . . . I don't get it.

    Recently, I visited a school where there was one choice (other than bring your own lunch) – tasty homemade lasagne and salad available for $1 (subsidized program). Only a handful of students didn't eat the school meal. They seemed to enjoy it and there was little waste. What a stark contrast to other schools with cafeterias and choices where I've seen children bring from home nothing more than fruit loops (and purchased milk) for lunch or a bag of uncooked ramen noodles.