School Lunch: Chicago Elementary Bans the Brown Bag

With Jamie Oliver beginning his second season of Food Revolution, it's time once again to think about the healthiness of the food served in public schools. I know, groan. Not good, right?

The overall health of our kids is depressing; Jamie's famous tear-jerking scenes show kids whose lives have been devastated by the expensive effects of diet-related diabetes, obesity and heart disease. And, according to Oliver, schools are only compounding that problem with high-fat, high-sugar fare that's heavy on the white flour and chemical preservatives, and low on freshness, nutritive value and deliciousness.

One novel approach: Ban the brown bag. That's just what the principal did at Little Village Academy, a public elementary school in Chicago. However paradoxical it may seem, Elsa Carmona explains it's because of the Flaming Hot Cheetos, a popular entree among her students before the ban. As the Los Angeles Times reported this week, "[The principal] created the policy six years ago after watching students bring 'bottles of soda and flaming hot chips' on field trips for their lunch." Carmona further described her choice as one of "milk versus a Coke."While many administrators might consider unhealthy lunches a prompt to begin school programs about nutrition (my own five-year-old was mightily impacted by such programs at his school), Principal Carmona went the institutional way -- preventing her students from bringing lunches from home no matter what their content -- allowing for exceptions in case of allergy or dietary restrictions -- forcing them to buy lunch from the cafeteria at a cost of about $50 a month.

This, of course, is where the "banned brown bag" policy gets truly dicey.

It's hard to create a policy that forces students to buy lunch from the cafeteria without raising concerns of cost -- even those who don't qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches may struggle to pay the $2.25 per day when brought-from-home PB&Js and carrot sticks probably cost less than $1.00 a day.

There are the inevitable concerns about an administrator's skewed incentives. According to the Los Angeles Times, "Any school that bans homemade lunches also puts more money in the pockets of the district's food provider." With Chicago's notorious history of corruption and kickbacks, a parent may have reason to be distrustful of such a totalitarian policy.

And then there's this: Kids don't really like the school lunches. A reporter visiting the school saw many of the lunches thrown away, mostly uneaten. Picky grade schoolers may want the same thing every day; forcing little kids to eat what's served them will not result in more accepting palates -- food experts say it usually results only in harmful food issues.

And while principals facing kids' lunches of Cheetos and Dr. Pepper may fume, there's no evidence that cafeteria food is any healthier than food prepared by parents. Besides, say parents, how dare you suggest we haven't the capacity to send good food to school for our kids?

"This is such a fundamental infringement on parental responsibility," J. Justin Wilson, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Center for Consumer Freedom, told the Los Angeles Times. And while the Center for Consumer Freedom isn't necessarily the expert on consumers or unbiased about flaming hot chips and soda -- after all, this is the organization that is funded by all the soda companies, McDonald's, and a number of other companies selling decidedly unhealthy food -- that doesn't stop Wilson from being correct in this narrow context. Parents should at least have the right to decide which foods their children should eat for lunch.

If the track record of school cafeterias on healthy food were better, I might feel differently. But while there are minimum requirements for "breads," proteins and vegetables, those requirements do not equal healthy choices, nor do they equal choices that make sense either financially or nutritionally for many families.

Yes, American children need to eat better. No, this is not served by forcing them to pay $2.25 each day for school cafeteria fare. Principals everywhere would do better to work to provide attractive, delicious and healthy foods in their cafeterias that kids beg for, all the while working to educate kids and parents on great nutrition.

Trying to achieve the goal of better health through a divisive edict will only end up with hurt feelings, grumbling tummies and lots of waste.
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