School lunch menus are often full of fried, sugary food. Image: wiscience / Flickr / CC BY-SA

The debate over school lunches has been around since the first school lunch was served. Recent reports on a Chicago school that bans lunches from home are raising nationwide ire. The school says this ban is to protect student health, but many parents beg to differ.

The challenges of school lunch

School lunches are a difficult challenge for any school district. Federal funds provide money to schools for free or reduced-fee lunches. Schools must also meet federal guidelines for the protein, vegetable, starch and nutritional content of the meals. For many schools, this means creating between 100 and thousands of meals a day for less than $3 for each serving. Many schools, facing staff and funding challenges, contract out these meals to services that pre-packaged them, specialty caterers or frozen food suppliers. It takes a talented, dedicated cook to create nutritious meals that picky kids will eat.

Chicago school bans lunches from home

One Chicago school, Little Village Academy, has banned students from bringing lunches from home for the past six years. The Chicago Public School District does not release official numbers or have a formal policy, but it does confirm that principals are given the latitude to make such decisions, and it is used in many of the schools. This policy means that, unless they have medical exemptions, students must eat the school lunch or go hungry. The principal of Little Village Academy says this policy is to protect students from themselves and their parents and was created after she saw “too many kids … bringing chips and sodas for lunch.” The principal says parents haven’t complained, but news sources are reporting that parents are unhappy with the rules.

Variability of school lunch

In some school districts, the $3 per student, per meal is spent on high-quality food that is creative, healthy and tasty. Austin school districts, for example, offer turkey burgers, whole-wheat pizza, omega-enriched pasta and other nutritionally dense yet recognizable foods. Most school districts, however,serve frozen, fried, “industrial” food that lacks nutritious content. The “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” aims to improve the situation, but it will take time and effort. Even after school lunches improve, the conflict between parents who want the schools to make parental decisions about food and parents who want to make their own decisions about their kids’ food will continue.


Chicago Tribune:
Austin 360:

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