There’s an article in the Chicago Tribune about how a public elementary school, LittleVillage Academy, has actually banned children from bringing a lunch from home. Another public school, ClaremontAcademy Elementary, confiscates any snacks with a surplus of sugar or salt. The rationale? School administrators claim that they are “protecting students from their own unhealthful food choices.” What a knowledge translation failure.
Little Village Principal Elsa Carmona said that children with a medical excuse may brown-bag it, but everyone else must eat the food provided by the school because, “Nutrition-wise, it is better for the children to eat at the school.”
Needless to say, most of the kids aren’t too thrilled with the edict. The photo accompanying the article shows a child burying his head in hands when confronted with the truly disgusting-looking enchilada meant to be his lunch.
The reporter wrote that during her visit to the school, many of the children took the school meal but threw most of it away uneaten, saying that it tasted bad. I think that’s an opinion shared by most people who can recall the food prepared in their school cafeterias.
I grew up in then largely-rural Sugar Land, Texas, a suburb of Houston. The school district purchased surplus okra from local farmers for next to nothing, and then boiled all of the taste and crispiness out of it before serving it up to the kids. To this day, I can’t even stand to look at the stuff.
Kids need to be taught how to make healthy choices – notice I wrote “choices.” If you only provide gross food, the kid is going to go hungry until he gets home from school, then stuff himself with Little Debbie snacks. None of these kids are learning anything about healthy eating. They aren’t being taught why it’s better to choose an apple over a Twinkie. They aren’t learning why eating well is important. All they are learning is that healthy food tastes bad. And that is what the real legacy of this edict will be.
So what messages are Claremont Academy and Little Village Academy really passing on to the pupils? First and foremost, in my opinion, is that their parents don’t know what’s best for them, the faceless bureaucracy does. Parents can’t be trusted to take care of you, so the school has to do it.
Second, it is reinforcing in these kids’ heads the belief that healthy food tastes bad. School food is institutionalized, mass-prepared, and uses the lowest-cost ingredients available. It’s bound to taste nasty, especially to little kids. If you give them this food and preach that this is “healthy” food, then the children are going to associate healthy food with gross food. I could be mistaken, but I don’t think that is the goal. The schools should look into what places like The Dell Center for Healthy Living are doing (full disclosure – the Dell Center is our neighbor at The University of Texas School of Public Health). They do a great job teaching children how to make their own choices about what they put into their bodies.