You’ll Eat Our Lunch and Like It

21:04 Tue 12 Apr 2011
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The headline really says it all: “Chicago school bans homemade lunches”.

That’s right. The daytime prisoners at this institution—sorry, the beloved Children Who Are Our Future at this Future-Oriented Center for Learning—are no longer allowed to provide their own alternatives to the midday meal, but must have whatever the school supplies.

What’s really shocking about this, to me, is the extent to which it doesn’t feel surprising at all. The overreach of American schools, their ongoing descent into paranoid “security-focused” locked-down institutions, and the prevailing attitude of administrators towards children as problems to be managed have all combined to make a move such as this almost humdrum.

You can come up with justifications pretty easily, too:

  • “The children need to eat nutritious food.”
  • “The children need to eat food that doesn’t make them too excitable for post-lunch classes.”
  • “The children need to all eat the same food to prevent conflict and jealousy.”
  • “The children need to all eat the same food to prevent the richer ones from having an unfair advantage.”
  • “The children need to all eat the same food to further dull any sense of individuality.”
  • “The children need to get used to eating bad food forced upon them by others because that’s what life is really like.”

Admittedly the last few are less likely to be stated by the relevant bureaucrats, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see someone argue along those lines in support of the measure.

Control over what you eat is a fairly fundamental freedom. Children traditionally don’t have that much control there, as their parents tend to dictate, but the revocation of such control from them and their parents is severe interference. It’s one thing to ban substances—although that itself is problematic, and it’s better to simply ban them from being sold at the school—but another to determine the daytime intake for all the children.

There are of course issues like allergies, inevitable exploitation of captive consumers, and arguments over what constitutes healthy food in any case (and whether that can be generalized to all individuals, even if it can be agreed upon and the school canteen can be trusted to serve it)—but all of those, while important, pale in comparison to the fundamental issue of revoking control over food from both the child and the child’s parents/guardians.

If food and diet are such terrible social issues that children are being badly harmed by eating poorly, the answer is to address that on a social level, and not ratchet up the levels of authoritarian control in schools. However, school administrators appear to think that increasing such controls is always the answer to problems, and our society has shamefully only encouraged them in that approach for the last several decades.

2 Responses to “You’ll Eat Our Lunch and Like It”

  1. alec flett Says:

    I’m not sure this is the right solution but if you actually spend time in a current urban public school cafeteria as I have (as both a teacher and a parent) and you’ll at least see where this is coming from, and why its not completely crazy. When a half decent nutritious school lunch system is done right, it is far more nutritious than what most American families are sending their kids to school with. But economically that system can only succeed if enough students participate. (And the argument that you can pack cheaper lunches at home is BS unless you are sending your kids to school with crap, which is kind of the point)

    Anyway, there are clearly alternatives – educational programs for kids and families alike (the obesity epidemic is frankly an educational issue – the same way this country is falling behind in math and science, we’re also falling behind in \how to eat\)

  2. Tadhg Says:

    I agree that there are significant issues with kids’ diets, and also that economies of scale should make it economically efficient to provide good food to students in a cafeteria—which should more or less guarantee sufficient participation by making it cheaper for parents. Taking choice away from parents and kids isn’t the way to do it, and provides perverse incentives to overcharge for low-quality food.

    If necessary, subsidies for school food might help, but you could also argue that subsidies for extremely unhealthy foods are part of why those foods are cheap and popular, and that elimination of those favors for agribusiness is where the effort should be concentrated. I know I’d be a lot more sympathetic to that than to treating children as captive consumers.

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