Don't Just Ban Home Lunches, Make School Lunch Experience Better

school cafeteria, school lunch
Who wants to spend a lot of time eating in a crowded, noisy cafeteria?

Gah! Don’t the administrators at The Little Village Academy in Chicago know anything about kids? Or anything about today’s parents? You can’t tell either of them what to do. But, you can sell them on what to do. Even when that means forcing them to buy and eat school lunches.

Background: Six years ago, The Little Village Academy banned outside school lunches and require all kids to dine from the offerings in the cafeteria. The school’s principal, Elsa Carmona, said it’s a matter of student health. Kids with home lunches were often bringing chips and sodas, and she wanted to promote good nutrition.

So she required it. Problem is, that’s all she did.

But students are balking because many don’t like the food. And a lot of parents are incensed that they’re being told how to feed their kids. They’re also worried that their picky eaters aren’t eating the school breakfasts and lunch and are spending a large part of their days hungry.

It sounds like opposition is building. I hope the principal prevails. At the same time, I think the school should change how they talk about lunch and not fight the “good nutrition at school” battle with the “as long as you’re under my roof” strategy.

Instead, Carmona should lead the charge and completely change her school’s meal culture.

I know there are budget restrictions, etc., but judging from the picture, the food appears kinda yucky even to me — a person so raised on school lunches I sometimes crave them in times of stress (hello, chili and lunch lady-made cinnamon rolls!). It’s not enough for food to be nutritious — or the lesser of two evils — it has to taste good. Since so many kids have to buy lunches (there are health/diet restriction exceptions), they’ve got more money than most schools to work with for making better healthy food. They should.

Another thing is atmosphere: dining halls are the worst place to sit down and eat. The long tables, the weird benches, the echo. People wax on about the family dinner for good reason: it’s cozy, talky-talky time as much eating veggies. I think it’s a shame that dining areas for kids aren’t made to be comfortable and peaceful. Whether it’s by design, or simply a consequence, cafeterias encourage people to get in and out in as little time as possible. Who would bother eating marginal food in those conditions?

Then, there’s the matter of time: how long is the lunch period? Twenty minutes door-to-door. Again, not enough to make the mealtime enjoyable, just enough time to choke down even great offerings.

Also, scheduling lunch after recess or free-time — not before — has been shown to decrease the amount of food kids throw away after lunch. In other words, they eat more. They’ve been freed from the desk and may even have worked up an appetite.

Finally, Carmona better be eating the school lunches, too, everyday.

I think changes like these would take some creativity but not a lot of extra resources. If done, Carmona could promote is as “school family mealtime.” Instead of getting talked about as a “ban on home lunches” she could call it her “full-body wellness” plan for getting kids to eat “brain food” so they can learn. The ultimate goal, feeding kids when they’re hungry, which is what the chips and soda parents want to do, too.

I think mandatory school lunches are dreamy. I’m tired of packing lunches and I don’t like the haves and have-nots divisions that are so apparent inside lunchboxes. Mainly, though, I like the idea of shared mealtimes also being share meals.

What do you think? Is there any way this principal could make it work?


Article Posted 5 years Ago
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