Schools Turn Into Lunchbox Police Hindering Not Helping Children’s Health

Some time ago I wrote about what I considered to be Nanny State nonsense.  A father was strongly criticised by his daughter’s substitute teacher, because she considered the school lunch, he packed for the little girl, was too unhealthy.

The teacher sent a note home with the child demanding that the father promise to do a better job in the future. In the note, the daughter’s substitute teacher, at Kirksville Primary School in Missouri, listed the unhealthy foods in the little girl’s school lunch, which included four chocolate bars, a bag of marshmallows, crackers and a pickle. It ended: “Please see that she packs a proper lunch tomorrow.” The letter was followed by a request for a parental signature, which the father refused to give, because he was so offended by the letter’s contents.

It turns out that the Dad in question, a man called Justin Puckett, also happened to be a family Doctor from Missouri. He posted the contents of the school letter on Facebook. Many might think and some might even say, as a Doctor, Justin Puckett, should know better than to send his daughter to school with a lunch containing so much junk food.  But in his defence, the Doctor and father said “I have the ultimate responsibility to raise my children and I take that role very, very seriously and so maybe I took it bit more personally that there was some offence that maybe I wasn’t doing a good job in that duty, something that is my number one job.”

To be fair, Justin Puckett, also made the point that the teacher did not give an accurate description of what was in his daughter’s lunch: “Unfortunately, the letter didn’t have what she had, correctly. She had four pieces of ham, a whole protein meat, she also had some pickles, which we admittedly cheat on pickles every once and a while as a vegetable, because some fights just aren’t worth having. She also had four marshmallows in a Ziplock bag and then she had three very small pieces of chocolate, of which she ate one for lunch and then she also gave her brother and another friend one at an after school program,” Puckett said.

The reason I want to raise this issue again was prompted by a piece written by columnist Kasey Edwards, claiming that schools have assumed the role of lunchbox police. Suddenly, the morning snack and lunchtime has become a test to see if parents are faithfully following the laws of healthy eating.

Edwards makes the point that what seems like a really good idea, is questionable on whether it has anything, at all, to do with health. In fact, in the quest to promote nutrition, schools may be unintentionally damaging a child’s relationship with food. One school in Brisbane is so strict that children must show their lunch boxes to the class each morning. Quite frankly that is ridiculous and may well be in breach of the child’s rights. Edwards says it is harmful to the well being of children. She claims to  know of one child, so anxious about having ‘bad’ food in his lunchbox, that he doesn’t want to go to school. Another school in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs conducts food inspections at the school gate, prohibiting ‘junk food’ from entering the school grounds. Of course banning anything only succeeds in sending it underground. Some enterprising pre-teens totally got the concept of supply and demand and realised that prohibition, as it was with alcohol in the United States in the 1930s, is a rolled gold marketing opportunity. These young entrepreneurs started a black market in the trafficking of doughnuts behind the school shed. “What more evidence do you need that food policing by schools is dangerous?” says Clinical Psychologist Louise Adams. “It’s teaching kids to hide their eating and to binge eat.” Adams says the risks far outweigh the benefits when it comes to schools having a food policy. “From the US research, we can see that this sort of food policing has not resulted in a reduction of body weight in children,” she says. “As a psychologist specialising in this area, all I can see happening is that children are developing a fear of food. Fear is not going to make children healthy; it’s just going to make their relationship with food disturbed.”

Edwards points out that at two primary schools in Melbourne, children are only allowed to eat fruit, vegetables and yoghurt for morning tea. She says this means by lunchtime, the kids are frequently starving which, is hardly conducive to learning. But even worse, it’s teaching children not to trust their bodies, and to develop an almost hysterical fear of certain foods.

Edwards retells the story of a friend who packed a single biscuit made by grandma for her daughter’s morning tea. The daughter came home feeling embarrassed that she had ‘bad’ food in her lunch box. “I put one biscuit in, not six,” said the friend. “What’s missing from this situation is the love and care that grandma put into making special biscuits for her granddaughter.” Can’t argue with that.

Edwards says as a mother she puts a lot of effort into teaching  her daughter to listen to her body and to decide when she is hungry and when she is full. If she’s hungry and wants two sandwiches for morning tea, then she is encouraged to eat the two sandwiches. Her daughter is never told to ignore her appetite and only eat carrot sticks. Food is never discussed in terms of good, bad or unhealthy. So there is never shame or guilt about what gets eaten. And that is the way it should be.

Edwards goes on to say that the food policies of some schools undermine the efforts of parents to help children develop healthy relationships with food.

It also goes way beyond a school’s authority. Edwards says as a parent, what goes into her child’s lunch box is her decision, based on family values, her intimate knowledge of her child’s current appetite, preferences, wellbeing, the family budget, and what’s in the cupboard.

And as long as it doesn’t threaten the wellbeing and health of other children, then it is none of the school’s business. Clinical Psychologist, Louise Adams’ says her daughter came home from her school on Sydney’s northern beaches last week, upset because she had a muffin for lunch and was told it was unhealthy.”My daughter was told that she should only eat fruit and vegetables and there was such shame on her face, like she’d really done something terrible,” Adams says. “Kids go from just eating food and being in tune with their bodies, to being scared and feeling worried that they are doing something wrong. This is the breeding ground for an eating disorder.”

Adams says that schools should not be delivering health messages about food to children. It is not their place.

“Kids are very black and white,” Adams says.  “Their capacity for nuance is not developed. If we tell them that something is good and something is bad, they believe that absolutely. Then they relate it to themselves, that they are then a good or bad person. Maybe we as parents need some support and help with how to provide a variety of foods to our kids, but it’s psychologically damaging and unnecessary to discuss it with children.”

But in saying this it doesn’t in any way undermine the need to take action to combat the consumption of junk food. The World Health Organisation, warns that diseases linked to lifestyle choices, including diabetes and some cancers, kill 16 million people prematurely each year and urgent action is needed to stop what it describes as a “slow moving, public health disaster”. Unhealthy habits like consuming too much fat, salt and sugar along with smoking and alcohol abuse, are causing an epidemic of diseases, which together constitute the leading cause of death globally. The WHO says this “lifestyle disease” epidemic “ is a much greater public health threat than any other epidemic in human history.

” Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), like cardiovascular conditions, diabetes, and a range of cancers, killed 38 million people around the globe in 2012 — 16 million of them under the age of 70,”  the WHO says. ” Not thousands are dying, but millions are dying … every year in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, not in their 80s and 90s.”

Forty two million children under the age of five are considered to be obese, and an estimated 84 per cent of adolescents do not get enough exercise.

In Australia, for example, some leading health groups have called on the Government to consider introducing a tax on junk food and sugary drinks.

“Despite at least six reports from task forces, obesity summits and research papers in the past 20 years advocating firm measures to stop marketing junk food to children, the advertising of fat, sugar and salt drenched products continues largely unrestricted,” the groups say in a joint statement. “Unless immediate action is taken to address dietary related illness there will be a significant increase in cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.”

And while we clearly need to tackle this epidemic, over-reacting may end up making the problem worse.There is no doubt that the schools are well meaning and want to implement food policies with the best of intentions. But, as Edwards points out, there is scant evidence to show that these policies have resulted in a reduction of childhood obesity and conversely, eating disorders are skyrocketing, so maybe the time has come for schools to consider whether their cure is worse than the disease.

Leave a Reply