Is This The End of PB&J?: A Critique Of The Homemade Lunch Ban in Chicago, Illinois – Amanda Filippelli
The childhood obesity epidemic facing this country has prompted unprecedented action on the parts of both political and public health professionals. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) conducted for the 2007-2008 cycle revealed that 19.6% of children aged 6-11 are obese, and 18.1% of children aged 12-19 are obese (1). First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign is a nationwide initiative focusing on diet and exercise modifications that can be done as a family to promote healthy living for children that extends throughout adulthood (2). This program has sparked many childhood obesity policy and program innovations to reduce the prevalence of obesity and its related co morbidities. One Chicago school took a proactive stand against childhood obesity by prohibiting students from bringing lunch and snacks from home. Little Village Academy, located on the west side of Chicago, Illinois recently put into effect a ban on lunches brought from home except for those with allergies or a medical excuse (3). Students are prohibited from bringing food from home and are required to eat the lunch provided by the school. Those who do not comply will go hungry for the day. There has been much criticism of the recent policy adoption. Upon examining the logistics and subsequent flaws of this initiative, one can hypothesize steps that schools can take to address the childhood obesity issue.
To understand the downfalls of the policy change, one must understand the rationale behind the change. Principal Elsa Carmona said in an interview that "nutrition wise, it is better for the children to eat at the school," "It's about the nutrition and the excellent quality food that they are able to serve (in the lunchroom). It's milk versus a Coke.” (3) She defended her policy by reiterating that she was protecting the children from their own “unhealthful food choices” (3). This is not the first time schools have taken a proactive approach to limiting unhealthy foods among their student population. In 2007, a school in Syracuse, New York banned cupcakes and other sweets brought from home for student birthday celebrations (4). Since children spend a majority of their time in school, policy makers and programmers work to make changes at the institutional level by using school interventions to promote healthy behaviors. Educational interventions that target school lunch reform hope to influence children by preventing them from consuming foods without nutritional value. While these school initiatives are important to influence students in their daily environment, there is little evidence that eating habits at home will be modified and include healthier choices.
There are many criticisms and opinions about the current policy, however there are three arguments that are worth considering when forming an opinion about the intervention. First, if food is unappetizing to children, they will go hungry. In the long term, malnutrition can have a significant impact on growth and development. Secondly, the policy violates parents’ inputs on school lunches for their children. Lastly, the financial impact that the policy has on the families of children who do not qualify for free lunch could present an even larger hardship on families who are struggling to make ends meet. By critically dissecting these arguments, one can see the negative attributes of this policy and how action must be taken to prevent its maintenance in the school system.
Eat their food or go hungry
For those children termed “picky eaters,” going without lunch daily could pose a health risk in the long term. It is not healthy for children to go hungry. In one study of children aged 2 – 11, between 13% and 22% of children were picky eaters (5). If food is unappealing to children, they won’t eat. Many parents have already notified the school that their child will not eat food offered through the school. Young children especially may not have a diverse palate and may not be open to trying new foods. One study found that students who skip meals are more prone to snacking during the day, usually on unhealthy processed foods (6). Skipping meals presents a problem for children because they do not consume the vitamins and minerals needed for growth and development, but rather eat the foods filled with preservatives. Children who skip meals are also more likely to refrain from eating vegetables (7). Therefore, it is important to understand children and their home food selections to capitalize on the healthy foods that they already may be enjoying from homemade lunches.
One important subpopulation of students is children with special health care needs. Children with autism spectrum disorders are particularly vulnerable to being picky eaters (8). Their sensitivity to new foods can make the lunch time routine even more difficult especially for the school lunch providers. Parents typically know what foods the child eats and stick to those foods, alternating lunch choices when possible. Furthermore, it is possible for children with special health care needs to participate in food selection in the comfort of their home with their parents. If schools ban homemade lunches, they run the risk of making lunch difficult for children with special health care needs who may be thrown off by foods that are different from their home.
Given the diversity of food preferences among children, it is problematic to assume that children will be pleased with the foods put before them, chosen by the school. Those who are not pleased won’t eat, and continued meal skipping could lead to delays in growth and development. It is important to recognize the nutritional and developmental impact of banning homemade lunches for schoolchildren. Children need nutrition and eliminating lunch brought from home could result in malnutrition for those continually unhappy with the selections put before them.
Where are their parents?
The initiation of this policy can also be seen as infringing on the rights of parents. Lunches have been brought from home for years. The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is just one example of a childhood lunch that has gained iconic status. While administrators admit that the policy came out of seeing students bringing unhealthy foods to school (3), it cannot be assumed that all parents send their children to school with unhealthy food every single day. Parental choice is a strong argument against the policy. Some parents may deem it acceptable to have a soda at lunch. Others may like to pack their child a brownie or other sweet for the day. It is not the right of the school to decide what is right for children and to undermine parental decisions. Schools do not sign permission slips if parents do not sign for a class trip. Schools should not make the decisions for parents regarding their children’s nutrition.
Anti-obesity efforts often teach that the harmful health effects of obesity can be prevented through lifestyle modifications. It is necessary to keep in mind that some of these lifestyle habits are choices, sometimes, but not always, influenced by other social factors. If a parent wants to send a child with a high fat, high sodium lunch, he or she has the right to do that because he or she is the parent. Families who struggle financially may need to make money last and will purchase the cheaper foods. Money can act as a huge barrier to healthy eating (9). While these are still choices, parents do the best they can to provide for their family and sometimes healthy living is sacrificed. This is especially important for parents of low socioeconomic status. Also, some parents might lack the knowledge about healthy foods (9). Lack of nutritional education can also be a major barrier to healthy food selection for the family. All in all, even if children are exposed to healthy school lunches, the school and government cannot control food consumed in the home. Research has shown that parental feeding style in the home directly influences child eating habits and there has been an observed difference in feeding style among different ethnic groups as well (10). Some parents are more indulgent than others and so schools must take into account that while some do allow their children to eat unhealthy foods, this cannot be a generalization made for all parents. Schools need to be respectful of parent choice when sending foods with their child for lunch.
Parental decision making capacity is a difficult issue to tackle, particularly when parents make decisions that may have a negative impact on children. It is vital to remember that parents still maintain legal authority over children and when their ability to make decisions is threatened, they are the first individuals to react. Psychological reactance theory dictates that individuals who feel their control is threatened will react to restore that freedom (11). Parents have disagreed with school systems for many different reasons and many are not afraid to protest or rebel against an unpopular policy or program.
Dollars and Cents
The financial considerations posed by this policy raise many questions about the burden this initiative could have on struggling families. Some students living near or below the poverty level qualify for free or reduced lunch; however those that live even slightly above the poverty level must pay $2.25 daily for lunch. For those in financial hardship, sending children to school with a few dollars for school lunch can pose an added stress on these families. It may be more economical to buy bread and sandwich materials that will last a week or more, than to purchase lunch every day. Financially speaking, the individuals that benefit from this policy are the school district lunch providers. Administrators are increasing the revenue of lunch providers by forcing parents to send their children with money in order to eat lunch. There is however, the risk of throwing out foods that children at school do not eat. If the new lunch programs do not have appealing foods, it is more likely that schools will have to throw out the leftover food, creating a great deal of waste.
The financial implications of the policy against homemade lunches can be linked to the problem of children going hungry if parents are unable to send lunch money each day. Food insecurity is a large problem for struggling families and while many qualify for free or reduced lunches, those who close, but do not meet the criteria for inclusion, have an additional burden (12). One study found that severe hunger can be triggers for anxiety and depression, thus impeding the educational process (13). Again, skipping meals due to inability to afford lunch can prevent students from being fully engaged in the learning process while in school. This can impact long-term educational and career goals. Teachers have observed lower educational achievement among those who are consistently hungry (14). These children are also difficult to engage and can be hyperactive, making learning more difficult for them and for other students. Inability to afford school lunches could pose a problem in the classroom in the long term.
Money is an important consideration for any public health policy or intervention. While Little Village Academy may have good intentions to influence children to eat better, the hardship this could provide to families outweighs any positives that could come to these children. For many families, finances were the first thought that came to mind following the initiation of this policy. Is it really worth it to send children and families who are on the edge of poverty into further financial trouble? Programmers need to take into consideration the financial impact of this policy and work with parents to develop alternative strategies to improving nutrition among children. The prohibition of homemade lunches did not appear to be the result of communication between parents and administrators. Schools and parents need to work together, rather than continue the ongoing battle for control.
There are many critics of the Little Academy homemade lunch ban, and these three arguments represent just the beginning of the controversy. Personal family circumstances play a large role in whether the intervention elicits positive or negative feedback. Since schools are made up of children with all different family circumstances, schools must do the best they can to make a supportive environment for their children. This intervention does have one positive attribute. It makes parents, educators, and policy makers think about the growing obesity issue facing schools and acknowledge the need for actions that involve children and take into consideration the needs of the population. With recognition of the problem, hopefully individuals can come together to create successful programs and policies that help children and improve health outcomes. It takes creative collaboration to truly make a difference and strive for better for the youth of tomorrow.
A New Approach
Schools have been a strong target of public health interventions to restrict unhealthy diets of children. There are several strategies that schools and programmers can take to promote healthy nutrition for the young people they are serving. The first step to be taken by policy makers and programmers is to reevaluate standards of school lunch programs. Perhaps a food quality specialist should be appointed to a particular school district, so as to monitor food intake on a small scale. A quality specialist would also speak with students periodically to hear from them about their feelings regarding current food choices and for ideas about improvement strategies going forward. Students have many opinions, and while it is impossible to please everyone, their feelings matter. It is necessary to improve the quality of school lunches before expecting children to purchase them, especially on a daily basis.
An alternative intervention to Little Village Academy’s ban on homemade lunches would be to have interactive lunch periods where children will be allowed to make their own lunches with materials from school. A registered nutritionist would spearhead this effort and collaborate with the school lunch providers to have sessions once a week where children would learn about healthy food and how to take part in their own lunch preparation. Each week, students will assist with making lunches, learning new recipes and ideas about nutrition and creating a balanced meal. Through active participation, children will learn skills that can carry into adolescence and adulthood. Ideally, teachers would be allowed to take advantage of this program and make their own lunches with the students, promoting nutritional meals, although it cannot be expected of all teachers to take time out of their schedule to assist students with making lunches. In conclusion, the foundation of this intervention rests in bringing students into the kitchen to teach them that making lunch can be fun and healthy.
To bring a new flavor to the program, chefs from local restaurants will also be invited to participate and showcase special healthy lunches that can be made at school or at home. Again, parents will be invited to help coordinate or engage children. These “celebrity chefs” will use materials from the school lunch program that have been preselected and approved by a quality assurance team that will monitor nutrition and food selections for the school.
As with any intervention or program, money is required for successful longevity. If school lunch programs already have the food materials, the major expense would be to hire a dietician on staff or a nutritionist. Some schools may have an individual who serves this role, whether it is a teacher or guidance counselor who has the certification to educate on nutrition or parents who are willing to assist with the program. A special budget needs to be set aside for wellness programming, particularly for nutrition interventions that will be successful in reaching students and improving health outcomes. A small monetary gift will also be given to the “celebrity chefs.”
The success of this initiative rests on families and school systems supporting each other to create the best food options for children. Through improvement of available foods at school and collaboration with parents to include favorite child-friendly foods, students will have healthy, appealing lunches.
Addressing Previous Concerns
These changes to a child’s access to unhealthy foods address the limitations of the Little Village Academy’s action to prohibit homemade lunches. First, children will have a say in what they eat for lunch. Those who are picky eaters will have many options available to them so that they are active participants in the decision making process. The goal of this program is to expose children to healthy food by including them in the food preparation so that they can bring that knowledge home. After careful food selection that incorporates ideas from families and children, school lunch programs can effectively serve foods that will not be eaten and not wasted.
Secondly, parents will maintain their decision making capabilities by sending children with lunch from home. Parents will complete a survey administered before the lunchtime sessions begin to get a feel for what children eat at home and what foods are popular among the student population. These surveys will be carefully examined and used to determine areas which healthy foods would be useful in equipping schools with foods that are lacking in a child’s diet. Furthermore, parents will be welcome to assist in the sessions and come to the school as their schedule permits. Parental involvement and support are key components that are crucial to success of this program.
Finally, any financial burden felt by the family will not be exacerbated by having to send children with money for lunch daily. Children will still be able to bring food from home. Parents will be notified about days when the workshops will take place so as to avoid any double lunches that would either be eaten or thrown away. Parents will also be notified what the meal choices of the week will be in order to plan ahead. There will be no additional cost to parents to have their children participate in the interactive lunch sessions as food will be provided by the school.
Banning school lunches without incorporating other healthy behaviors into school curriculum can inhibit true progress in child and adolescent health. In order for children to improve all around well-being, exercise can also be a target of reform. While not a nutritional intervention, exercise can also be a great tool against obesity. First, more appealing exercise programs can be implemented in physical education curriculum. Engaging children is important and diversifying the classes taught, offering fitness courses, and bringing in special teachers to make physical education a course that everyone looks forward, to can be a goal for schools. If schools are going to initiate anti-obesity programs, there needs to be effort given to both exercise programming and nutritional programming. If Little Village Academy had taken a comprehensive approach to examining overall health of children, rather than solely eating habits, perhaps individuals would be more likely to take the interventions seriously.
Modifications to school lunch programs and food available at school can be made without prohibiting lunches made from home. Giving students the opportunity to be proactive with regard to their lunches equips them with decision making skills done with guidance from parents and programmers. Taking control away from families and children can lead to backlash and it is important to recognize that it takes time and patience on the part of everyone involved. There may not be an immediate change in foods brought from home, however, if students learn creative ways to make healthy food appetizing, perhaps this will extend into future. It would be interesting to study changes in eating behaviors or children and their families following this intervention.
The field of public health strives to inform the community and improve the quality of life for individuals, particularly those in vulnerable populations. The high prevalence of childhood obesity in this country is alarming and necessitates changes in lifestyle choices. National and local interventions strive to promote healthy eating habits by limiting access to unhealthy foods, but when do good intentions go too far? Little Village Academy in Chicago, Illinois seems to care about their children and has a strong desire to prevent students from being exposed to foods with high levels of fat and sugar on a daily basis. The prohibition of all lunches brought from home can be a dangerous initiative, taking away parental discretion in making food choices. Childhood obesity is an important issue to address but what happened to the idea of “anything in moderation”? Perhaps public health interventions tackle the obesity issue in a way that’s too extreme. Lastly, is it really the job of the school to decide what foods children eat? A great deal of responsibility rests in the school system to shape the minds of young people to enter the world and make healthy choices. With all of the knowledge they are to cover, it can be a daunting task on educators to deliver each lesson comprehensively with so much information to teach. It will be interesting to see how long this policy will withstand, given the many criticisms of its implementation.
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