Menu is Mandated at the Nanny Cafe

Posted: Apr 13, 2011 12:01 AM
Menu is Mandated at the Nanny Cafe

The school lunch debate took center stage this week with a Chicago Tribune story about a public school on the city’s West Side that prohibits children from bringing lunches from home.

Little Village Academy banned sack lunches six years ago in a supposed effort to improve the nutritional quality of the food its students consume.

According to the report, Chicago Public Schools permits its principals to use their discretion to decide whether their student population needs stringent rules about food choices. Several of the schools apparently have banned sack lunches, while others permit them but confiscate certain foods that administrators deem unhealthy (think Doritos, soda, candy).

Problem: The Little Village students hate much of the school’s cafeteria food. Lunches routinely are thrown away uneaten, leaving children hungry until they get home at the end of the day.

Bigger problem: It’s not the role of a public school principal to decree what her students may and may not eat. In fact, even the less-stringent policies convey a growing and disturbing trend among educators and others toward meddling in parents’ decisions.

I’m not arguing the merits of a healthier school lunch. As the mother of four children, I’ve already packed thousands of lunches for the very purpose of ensuring the nutritional value of my children’s midday meals, and I have about 900 to go, give or take. (Note to self: We’re out of turkey.)

But the children profiled in the Chicago Tribune story say they would rather bring a sandwich and a banana from home than eat the glop that passes for “healthy” enchiladas on their lunch trays. However, Little Village parents who want to pack lunches that are even healthier than those prepared in the school cafeteria are unable to do so. (The school makes exceptions for children with allergies or special dietary needs.)

More troubling is the underlying belief that prompts such policies — that some parents simply are incapable of making wise decisions on behalf of their children, even about what to feed them for lunch.

It’s a dicey issue. I’ve been writing for years about the general lack of parenting skills in our nation, including inconsistent discipline, “buddy parenting” and more serious shortcomings, such as letting the culture raise their children without a moral compass or a value system to direct their behavior.

Our national parenting crisis is resulting in a generation that is generally undereducated, hypersexualized, inadequately supervised, media-saturated and poorly fed. Heck, children don’t even get enough sleep at night thanks to TVs in their bedrooms.

So let’s assume the folks at Little Village Academy and other schools simply are responding to the lack of solid parenting they see exhibited as junk food in sack lunches with a well-intentioned and convenient solution. (Plus, it’s lucrative for the company that provides school lunches and the union cafeteria workers they employ. But I digress.)

Ah, but the road to tyranny is paved with good intentions.

The folks who advocate such mandated programs always pitch what sounds like an irrefutable argument: The school (read: government) must step in for our children’s health and wellness.

Today, it’s required school lunches and body-fat analyses in countless school districts. Tomorrow, who knows what parental rights will be usurped in the name of healthy children?

In a free society, the most we can do is teach and encourage parents to make healthy and wise choices on behalf of their children. Information, “peer pressure” and a healthy school community will do far more to influence parents’ behavior than forced solutions from the powers that be.

Anyway, disempowering parents simply won’t work. As the students at Little Village Academy know too well, when it comes to feeding our nation’s children, the “Nanny Cafe” doesn’t come close to homemade.

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