Tray Versus Lunch Box: The Dizzying Debate

last day of 6-7 lunch ever

Kathleen Blanchard, a Registered Nurse and freelance health author, reports for EmaxHealth on a study compiled by the Cardiovascular Center at the University of Michigan, which says it is extremely rare to find a genetic basis for childhood obesity. Blanchard writes,

The researchers say leptin deficiency from gene mutation has been blamed for overeating, but according to the U-M study, lifestyle factors were closely associated with obesity rates in the children studied, ruling out heredity as the cause for the increase in number of overweight and obese children.

The suggested solutions are more activity, less TV and computer screen time, and more nutritious school lunches. And better yet, pack lunch at home. This study showed that 45% of the obese kids were habitual school lunch eaters — but only 34% of normal-weight kids in the study ate school lunches.

But wait. Just hold on a minute. If home-made lunches are better for preventing obesity, then why did a Chicago school ban them, incurring from some parents outrage and accusations of fundamental infringement on parental responsibility?

Monica Eng and Joel Hood reported on this for the Chicago Tribune. The place is Little Village Academy, a public school where eating the food served in the cafeteria is mandatory, unless a child presents a note from a doctor. This has been going on for six years, but there is no mention of whether the rule has resulted in any actual weight loss among the students. And although the food provider has improved the nutritional quality of the lunches served, student participation in eating them has actually decreased. Kids who don’t qualify for free or discount meals pay $2.25 per day for food that is just as likely to end up in the dumpster.

At Little Village, most students must take the meals served in the cafeteria or go hungry or both. During a recent visit to the school, dozens of students took the lunch but threw most of it in the garbage uneaten.

Principal Elsa Carmona told the reporters that the object of requiring the consumption of cafeteria food is to protect students from their own bad choices. She also said this is a fairly common practice among local schools, but was unable to name any other examples. The reporters asked around, and discovered a city school where packed lunches are allowed, but salty and sugary snacks are confiscated (and returned after school, which at least reduces the theft index, but leaves one wondering, what is the point?)

Well, one of the points may be to guarantee that the school district’s food contractor collects the maximum number of dollars from a captive population of customers who have no choice and whose rights, some say, are being violated.

A spokesperson from the Center for Consumer Freedom has complained, on behalf of the parents and children, that this is a perfect instance of “how the government’s one-size-fits-all mandate on nutrition fails time and time again.” The Center for Consumer Freedom is partly funded by the food industry, and it has been suggested that the food industry has a vested interest in insisting that it ought to be okay for kids to bring their lunches from home.

But the food industry also has a vested interest in insisting that kids should not bring their lunches from home, because of the profit that can be harvested from providing cafeteria lunches. Guess it depends on which tentacle of the food industry is concerned, in any given case. Or maybe it’s just that they’ve got us, both coming and going.

Meanwhile, a school in Tucson, Arizona, goes to the opposite extreme. Rather than being forbidden to bring lunch from home, the kids must pack it in because they have no other choice. The school lacks food preparation facilities, so all the kids are brown-baggers. But their lunches are inspected and, in some cases, rejected. If the food brought from home is not suitable, it is taken away.

Stephanie Innes of the Arizona Daily Star reports seeing a teacher at the Children’s Success Academy confiscate a package of crackers and cheese. Another seized a burrito and a quesadilla made from white flour tortillas, and gave those children peanut butter and honey on whole wheat, instead. (Although the school has no cafeteria, donations provide an emergency supply of those accepted foods.) An argument could be made that the substituted edibles are no improvement. Whole wheat contains gluten; honey is just liquid sugar; and peanut butter is notorious for being populated with mold, as well as being extremely dangerous to any child with a peanut allergy.

Nanci Aiken, the school’s director and founder, told the reporter that sugar causes behavior problems, and it is banned along with white flour, fruit juice that is less than 100% pure, and anything defined as processed. And for birthdays and holidays, she doesn’t cut the kids any slack. They can bring in fruit or nuts to share, but no Valentine cookies or Halloween cupcakes.

And in Great Britian, where about half the school kids carry their lunches from home, those meals are full of junk food, we are told by Rebecca Smithers. Four out of five kids bring in chips, cookies, and other substances packed with fat, salt, and sugar. Smithers writes,

Research from the University of Leeds shows that only 1% of their lunchboxes meet the tough nutritional standards that have been set for their classmates on school meals. The findings were described as “appalling” by children’s health campaigners, who want all children to be given free, nutritious school meals.

Schools of course do have the power to enforce nutritional standards on cafeteria food, if they are willing to face the fact that a lot of it will end up in the garbage. A certain amount of official blindness seems to be in effect, as authorities and parents assume that if schools provide free, healthful meals, children will eat what is given to them. And while they are willing and able to enforce nutrition policies, the reporter mentions another problem. While the availability of plain water could go some way toward preventing the consumption of sugary drinks, it seems that schools are unable to provide the children with water. You’d think that would come under common sense rule of “first things first,” but apparently not.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Obesity in children is the result of unhealthy lifestyle habits, not genes say researchers,” Emax Health, 01/31/11
Source: “Chicago school bans some lunches brought from home,” Chicago Tribune, 04/11/11
Source: “No-Oreo zone: Kids at school can’t bring processed food,” Arizona Daily Star, 04/14/10
Source: “Junk food fills children’s lunchboxes,” The Guardian, 01/12/10
Image by elisasizzle, used under its Creative Commons license.

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  1. […] Childhood Obesity discusses the debate over packed vs tray lunch.  Some schools require packed (but inspect it for junk food), some don’t allow food from home at all.                                                         […]

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