For students at Little Village Academy in Chicago, bringing lunch to school is verboten. Principals of Chicago's public schools are allowed to implement a "no bag lunch" policy if they say it serves the needs of their students. Principal Elsa Carmona began the ban at Little Village Academy six years ago in response to seeing students eating chips and soda during school field trips. "Nutrition wise, it is better for the children to eat at the school," Carmona told the Chicago Tribune. "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." Exceptions are made for students with food allergies or other medical issues that would prevent them from being able to eat the school's offerings.
Home-packed lunches have raised issues well before the Tribune's story lit up the Internet Monday morning. Because some children have life-threatenng allergies, public schools have been known to ban specific foods—such as nuts and nut-based products—to try to create a safe environment for those students with special needs. ( Schools have also restricted milk and egg products, but these instances are comparatively rare.) Some schools also implement "no trading" policies, prohibiting students from exchanging food so that allergic reactions aren't accidentally triggered. While some parents argue that asking an entire school population to adjust its behavior to accommodate the few, others rise to the challenge of working within the school's parameters.
I started packing lunch in response to appalling food options offered at school. My high school cafeteria was littered with vending machines–soda, ice cream, snack foods, and one that offered every flavor of milk except plain—and your choice of Taco Bell and Subway fare for a main course. I had nutritionally balanced lunches by way of the federally subsidized lunch program in elementary and middle school—as well as eagle-eyed cafeteria staffers who would send you back in line if you came to the register without a fruit or vegetable on your tray. I still have no idea why school food became so poor once I got into high school, but I'm glad it got me into the habit of bringing my own food. And I still pack lunch on a daily basis. Knowing I have to fill the lunchbox in the morning has been a big incentive to cook for myself and to pack fruit to snack on throughout the day. And as others will attest, brown bagging it has some serious advantages—notably when it comes to saving money.
However, food from home and good nutrition are not necessarily one in the same. With childhood obesity levels staggeringly high, public schools are a venue where kids can be guaranteed access to healthy food, especially with the recent expansion of the federal school lunch program. And hopefully, those changes will indeed bring about positive nutritional changes. The blogger known only as Mrs. Q documented a year of eating public school lunches and the quality of the meals really ran the gamut. And who here remembers the state of school lunches served in Huntington, West Virginia before Jamie Oliver mounted an intervention?
Is this a nanny state policy or a step in the right direction? Continue the discussion in the comments area below.