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Should kids be able to bring their own lunches to school?

I encountered this news article, “Chicago school bans some lunches brought from home”:

At Little Village, most students must take the meals served in the cafeteria or go hungry or both. . . . students are not allowed to pack lunches from home. Unless they have a medical excuse, they must eat the food served in the cafeteria. . . . Such discussions over school lunches and healthy eating echo a larger national debate about the role government should play in individual food choices. “This is such a fundamental infringement on parental responsibility,” said J. Justin Wilson, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Center for Consumer Freedom, which is partially funded by the food industry. . . . For many CPS parents, the idea of forbidding home-packed lunches would be unthinkable. . . .

If I had read this two years ago, I’d be at one with J. Justin Wilson and the outraged kids and parents. But last year we spent a sabbatical in Paris, where . . . kids aren’t allowed to bring lunches to school. The kids who don’t go home for lunch have to eat what’s supplied by the lunch ladies in the cafeteria. And it’s just fine. Actually, it was more than fine because we didn’t have to prepare the kids’ lunches every day. When school let out, the kids would run to the nearest boulangerie and get something sweet. So they didn’t miss out on the junk food either.

I’m not saying the U.S. system or the French system is better, nor am I expressing an opinion on how they do things in Chicago. I just think it’s funny how a rule which seems incredibly restrictive from one perspective is simply, for others, the way things are done. I’ll try to remember this story next time I’m outraged at some intolerable violation of my rights.

P.S. If they’d had the no-lunches-from-home rule when I was a kid, I definitely would’ve snuck food into school. In high school the wait for lunchtime was interminable.


  1. Arthur B. says:

    In negotiations, one can benefit from being bound by restrictive rule. In this instance for example, your kids could not make you pack them lunch. I assume this was the underlying dynamic, otherwise I cannot make sense of: "Actually, it was more than fine because we didn't have to prepare the kids' lunches every day"

    I'm 29, I grew up in France and moved to the US about 6 years ago. Even though it is the status quo in France, I *do* find such a restriction an intolerable violation of my rights. Intolerable violation of individual rights are just the way things are done in my home country.

  2. Andrew Gelman says:


    Our kids can't make us bring lunch, but we don't want them to go hungry! At their school here there's no kitchen; all the kids bring their own lunches.

  3. Matt says:

    Amen to intolerable violation of individual rights just the way it is elsewhere not meaning we should just get used to it.

    Making this even worse? The food served in most school cafeterias makes me want to vomit just thinking about it.

  4. http://models.street says:

    Unless things have changed dramatically from the late 80's and early 90's, the quality of the american food is probably an order of magnitude worse than the french food, making the comparison largely meaningless. No one's going to complain about being forced to eat free tasty healthy food, but being forced to eat greasy cold pizza or nearly 100% lard in the form of a "hot link" or whatever is truly awful.

  5. Phil says:

    On the flip side of this, I somehow remain amazed (after twenty years) that the kids in the local high school get to leave school for lunch. There's a cafeteria at the school that serves food that even the kids say is pretty good — it's gotten a ton of press for the tasty/healthy/nutritious/etc. food that it serves — but almost all of the kids go to local eateries instead, mostly for junk food.

    I have no logical reason whatsoever for objecting to this, but somehow it bugs me a little, just because that's not the way we did things when _I_ was a kid.

  6. Antonio says:

    Do you really want to compare what is provided by a French cafeteria with an American one?

  7. Sean Matthews says:

    My daughter, who is 10, when asked what her enduring impression of America is (which, for her, means, most recently, the greater Chicago region) immediately replies: 'horrible food'. She does not say the same about France.

    American school canteen food and French school canteen food are not (remotely) comparable.

  8. FH says:

    Jamie Oliver's TED Talk regarding school food.

  9. Sebastian says:

    I don't know – "intolerable violation of individual rights" seems more than a little overblown regardless of how you feel about the merits of this. The kids have to stay in school half the day, they most likely have to conform to a dress code, in many schools – including pubic ones I believe – even wear school uniforms – they get banned from school if they bring anything remotely resembling a weapon, many schools have strict rules about the type of medication students can carry (including aspirin et al…) etc. etc.

    But suddenly when it's about school lunches, imposing some rules is the end of freedom and the constitution? The school has an educational mission and it can impose rules to enforce such a mission. Including lunch period and ideas about common meals, healthy food etc. into that mission really doesn't strike me as overreaching: It's apparently the norm in NYC's trendy private schools.

    But of course, Sean and Antonio have it right – this has to go hand in hand with much better Cafeteria food, in a much more sophisticated setting which is also the standard in France:,8599,196

    I can certainly see that people could argue for the US approach, but the idea that what the French do has anything to do with an intolerable invasion of Freedom is just silly.
    (It's especially odd coming from someone like Arthur B., who as a foreign national essentially doesn't enjoy full habeas corpus rights in the US – but yeah, he can give his kid junk food to bring to school…)

  10. Tom says:

    From my perspective, the quality of the meal makes all the difference. The meals in my daughter's former elementary school were only "nutritional" on some technicality that I could never decipher. Hot dogs and french fries with chocolate milk "met the nutritional requirements," and were often the best thing on the menu. If I were required to feed my daughter that lunch every day, I'd change school districts rather than ruin her health. Had the food been healthier, eating it every day would have been just fine.

    That said, the cynic in me suspects that the decision at Little Village has more to do with school revenues and lucrative vending contracts than with students' health.

  11. Igor Carron says:

    If I were to compare France and say Texas, I'd say that this is more an issue of how the school systems are clearly delineating the stakeholders.

    In France, the meal is paid for through the mayor's office. The school itself is owned by the city but the educators are getting their paycheck from the state. There are simply different stakeholders with pretty well defined responsibilities. If the kids don't eat right, the mayor gets to hear about it very fast and she/he wants to make sure that she/he is not seen as "starving the children".

    In Texas, the whole school (educators, canteen,…) are all dependent on one administration (the school district). If the food is not good, then someone on the school board may hear about it and then drown the problem and point the fingers to the "inefficient" school's administration. But there are so many issues at the school level that I don't think you can loose an election on the school board based on that one particular item.

    Not many people will also articulate this but I would not be surprised if the French considered sharing the same meal a way of mixing different people from different backgrounds (rich,poor,…). If you pack lunch for your kids, you are also probably allowing your kid to send some signals that are not conducive to a smooth learning experience.

    Finally, in rural Texas, it is not difficult to find burger joints nearby a school. In France, this convenience is just unheard in small villages.

  12. Antonio says:

    I have been always amazed about the quality of the food in US. Really.

  13. Dr X says:

    As a longtime Chicago resident who is paying for these lunches, and as a Chicagoan who knows this neighborhood, here is how I look at this situation

    Primary school attendance is mandatory.

    The dress code is school imposed.

    The curriculum is mandatory.

    The state mandates exercise during the school day.

    The performance standards are set by the state.

    The students are children, not adults. The adults at school are legally and morally responsible for the education, health and safety of the children while they are on the school premises. I don't think it represents a nanny-state crisis if the principal also insists that the children–children as young as age 5–eat decently while they are legally under her care and supervision. How the children eat may very well affect their ability to make the most of their time in school.


    733 are children enrolled at LVA.

    The LVA student body is 99.6 Hispanic.

    38% if LVA students are limited-English learners; 7% special education students.

    99.9% are from low-income families virtually all of these students would be eligible for free lunch if there was a charge for lunch, but this year, CPS instituted a free lunch policy for all students in all Chicago schools regardless of household income.

    This is also one of many city schools that provides free breakfast to all students at their desks every morning–cereal, milk, fruit and scrambled eggs. Children aren't permitted to bring breakfast to school either. No complaints about their liberty under attack.

    The reason this story became an issue locally is that CPS changed the lunch menu to provide healthier fare. The new lunches are low in saturated fats. No more donuts on the menu. The kids don't like the new lunches as much as the old lunches.

    That is the issue locally with respect to the ban; it's not an ideological issue. Some CPS principals here allow lunch from home, some only ban sugared drinks and candy, and some ban home lunches. It's up to each principal to decide on breakfast and lunch policy because the principals are in the best position to know about the needs of students in their school on the basis of direct observation.

    Any child who has a medical need for a special lunch from home is permitted to bring lunch from home.

    I trust the principals to spend time in the cafeterias and watch what's happening with students from their neighborhoods. A large proportion of these kids come from single parent homes and homes with parents who literally have no more than 4th grade educations. The most effective educators in impoverished inner city neighborhoods are deeply involved in the lives of their students and that involvement even reaches the level of making sure these kids eat decently.

    Now, let's look at how Principal Carmona and her staff are performing.

    LVA Student:

    67.9% meet or exceed state reading standards (remember: 38% are limited-English students).

    79.4% meet or exceed state math standards.

    75.7% meet or exceed state science standards.

    Carmona, her faculty and staff are doing an impressive job given the student population they serve. And I imagine that Principal Carmona is most concerned with the success of her students. Ideological blogger tantrums don't educate the very challenging student population at her school, but a decent lunch might help a little. So when she sees some struggling student slugging a Pepsi and eating a two-pack of Pop Tarts for lunch, it probably occurs to her that she should see to it that her students eating better while they are in her care.

    All of the information I provided above is publicly available.

    I am libertarian-leaning psychologist not employed or paid by the City of Chicago, CPS or any other government agency. None of my family members are employed by the city or the school system. I'm a private practice clinician who also does some contract work for a private school. I am not a friend of Ms. Carmona or any teacher at the school. I have no personal stake in this whatsoever, other than my personal interest in the well-being of children generally and my interest in CPS as a Chicago taxpayer.