Food Fight

Around the country, school years are coming to a close. Back when I was in elementary, middle, and high school, no matter the country, we started school on the last Monday of August and finished in mid-June. The 16th was a popular last day of school. Despite years that included such natural disasters as tree-splitting typhoons, April snowfalls, and blizzards that shut down school for a week, I never even had to do a make-up day.

After I went to college and met students from dozens of cities, I realized that the academic year regularly ended in mid-May for millions of other students, mostly from private schools. It just had never been so for me. I only went to public schools, so being released before the end of May during my senior year of high school was incredibly liberating. However, because of the aforementioned late end, we didn’t walk until well into June. This and other experiences made me realize that not all schools are created equal. The differences run deeper than state standards and city budgets.

Recently, there has been a significant but important debate rising around a Chicago school that has banned lunches brought from home. Two issues are central to this debate: the power limitations of public school administration and the rights of parents of public school students.

Considering my potential children, my background with schools, and my many friends who already have children (none of whom are school-aged yet), this discussion drew me in. I completely understand the reasoning behind the ban. Only a few years ago it was almost unimaginable that vending machines and sodas (even those brought from home) could be banned in elementary schools. It seemed ludicrous when I was in middle school that public schools would ever implement uniform policies, yet I graduated one year before my own alma mater made the switch. Teachers and administrators often see students for much more time than their own parents do, and trying to get them to make better food choices is part of their responsibility as teachers (and as decent human beings). If a teacher provided junk food and sweets more than occasionally, he or she would be irresponsible. This is a swing farther in the direction of encouraging student to lead healthier lives.

image by Ben+Sam

However, I disagree with the principal’s decision in this case. With any other school, parents could choose to simply take their kids elsewhere. But public schools are supposed to be for everyone. Three primary points should be noted from the Trib article. First, the policy has apparently been in place for six years, but it is only making headlines now. This is curious. Shouldn’t the quality have been improved by now? Secondly, no other schools have been identified as having similar policies despite the principal’s claim. Shouldn’t she or the reporter have checked into that? Finally, there is little mention of the cost to parents. When uniforms are an issue, inexpensive, logo-free clothing is usually an option. (And clothes in general aren’t cheap.) With a ban on inexpensive brought-from-home lunches, parents are literally forced to send money or not feed their kids. If they don’t want their children to go hungry, they have to hand over the cash for something the kids might not even actually eat. It doesn’t seem far between a parent refusing to pay and allegations of negligence. I want to hear more on this last aspect.

As do many things in my life these days, this story also contains a religious aspect. During my first year teaching, my school’s campus minister sent home a letter before Lent. In it, she explained Friday abstinence (literally 90% our students were not Catholic) and the fish or cheese pizza that would be served until Easter. Most interesting to me was that she requested that students who brought their lunches from home (a clear minority) not bring meat on Fridays, either. Having only been to public school and therefore never seen anything like this letter, I found it intriguing and entirely appropriate. She made clear that the school would be following Catholic teaching and encouraged parents to support this even for their non-Catholic students, but she didn’t mandate anything. She chose the high road: principled but kind. This Chicago principal could stand to take a lesson from that campus minister. If you’re serious about acting in loco parentis by improving students’ health via lunch, then make the lunches so healthy and attractive to students’ taste buds that they will prefer them to Mom’s. Otherwise, let them have a choice.

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