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
From the editors
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.