Politics & Policy

Out to Lunch

There is no such thing as a free lunch. Then why are so many parents upset that school cafeterias are serving junk food instead of healthy meals?

Kids are overweight and parents are pointing fingers at school cafeterias that allow students to (over)indulge daily in Pizza Hut®, Chick-fil-A®, and Taco Bell®. A recent report on NPR’s Morning Edition included testimonials from Virginia middle-school students who celebrated their lunch likes of pizza, ketchup packets, and strawberry milk and their dislikes of fresh fruits and vegetables.

NPR related federal and state government efforts to curb bad eating habits by eliminating soda machines and reducing the amount of pizza served. They profiled a radio-station campaign aimed at teaching kids that fruits and vegetables are “cool,” and they highlighted a local business eager to educate students in healthy eating.

Missing from the report? Parents.

Since when has it been the full responsibility of schools not only to provide students with lunch, but also to teach them “one-size-fits-all” nutritional education? While popular belief suggests children adopt their parent’s values–religion, respect for others, support for education–the role of parents in what children eat is absent from public discourse.

School lunches are notorious for serving slop–by this I mean anything from Sloppy Joes to French-toast sticks with sausage patties. Parents have always had the opportunity to circumvent this nutritional void by packing lunches–tuna sandwich, apples, maybe a cookie for dessert? Doesn’t anyone miss Capri Sun?

Let’s not delude ourselves that there was a time when school cafeterias actually served healthy lunches. 1950s-style meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy does not leave ten-year-olds feeling agile and energetic for after-school baseball practice. Certainly, there is something to be said for the rigidity of our parent’s generation’s school lunches. The school was less concerned with what the children ate than that they received a hot meal.

That “take-it-or-leave it” mentality, however, no longer exists. Today, choosing what to eat for lunch is a form of self-expression that only the most repressed traditionalist would consider revoking from children. Today, schools and administrators are more concerned that students will be hungry than that they eat anything approximating a healthy lunch.

Americans frequently clash on educational standards–evolution vs. creationism, the arts vs. sports, and support for sex education. Central to all these debates are the values parents believe are appropriate for their children. The same should be the case with what students eat. Why should we leave something as important (and personal) as a child’s nutrition up to government bureaucrats, school administrators, radio hosts, or local businesses?

My response to this hubbub about school cafeterias: Bring back brown-bag lunches!

You know the brown-paper bags boys would forget to take out of their backpacks before putting in their science textbook. And the pretty bags the girls used to bring that had cartoons or flowers on them. What happened to brown-bag lunches where mom would slip a little note in saying “I love you” or “Remember your orthodontist appointment at 4:00 o’clock.”

There is something not only nutritional, but also comforting about the brown bag. In fact, the brown-bag lunch allows for much more “self-expression” than anything that comes off a cafeteria line. In addition to having your name written on it, every crumpled up brown bag contains a taste of home. There is something that reflects ones likes (or dislikes), something that represents ones character, as well as habits.

This is not meant to sound saccharine, but the brown bag allows for a great deal of individuality. Take, for instance, my family growing up. I liked peanut butter and jelly, but my brother was a peanut butter and banana fan. I liked carrot sticks, he liked fruit. Some kids prefer tuna, others request turkey. Some children can afford an extra Oreo, others should only be given one. Children are different and no two lunches need be exactly the same. But, instead of giving our kids free reign over the school-run food court in the name of self-expression, why not return the historic responsibility of providing to moms and dads.

Busy parents probably like leaving lunch up to the schools. I recall the look of relief on “Hot Dog Day” when my mom simply handed me five dollars instead of hustling around the kitchen in that morning fog filling our brown bags.

A more sensitive issue, of course, is the dependence of low-income children on (in theory) a balanced meal each day. While federal and state level meal subsidies, such as the USDA’s National School Lunch Program, are intended to guarantee all students a healthy lunch, regardless of their parent’s income level, the results are falling short of expectations as schools have welcomed in popular brand name fast food chains to help supplement their narrow budgets.

The nutrition for these children is especially important–and transcends the need to please their palate–as obesity rates have soared to over 15 percent of children aged 6 to 11 years. If the government is going to sponsor school lunches, they ought to take their cue from the brown bag. If the food is too greasy, sticky, or large to be accommodated by a lunch bag, it should be purged from the cafeteria menu.

We should not allow school lunch programs to override the simple maxim “mom and dad know best.” There are simple solutions to these problems of childhood obesity, food-court cafeterias, and unhealthy eating habits. Too often we look to the government, the schools, and celebrity figures to try to fix the problem.

Here’s one instance when the answer can be found right in the brown bag.

Sabrina Leigh Schaeffer received an M.A. in history and is currently finishing an M.A. in politics, both at the University of Virginia. She is actively seeking employment on Capitol Hill.


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