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Posted at 12:02 PM ET, 04/12/2011

When schools dictate what kids eat for lunch

A Chicago public school forbids most of its students from bringing in food for lunch or snacks and instead offers them a $2.25 daily meal that, it turns out, a lot of the kids don’t want to eat.

The public school systems in Washington and Fairfax County both banned chocolate milk from elementary lunch lines this past year, my colleague Kevin Sieff wrote. They were besieged by complaints from not only kids but also nutritionists who said the students were better off drinking the milk, with the chocolate flavoring, to get important minerals and vitamins they might not otherwise get.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the principal at Little Village Academy on Chicago’s West Side made the rule to promote healthy eating, a laudable goal. But Principal Elsa Carmona doesn’t seem to understand the ocean of difference between encouraging and educating kids how to eat and telling families what kids are going to have for lunch.

Under the rules that Carmona has implemented for six years, only students with a medical reason (including allergies) can bring in their own food. She was quoted in the Tribune as saying, “Nutrition-wise, it is better for the children to eat at the school. It’s about the nutrition and the excellent quality food that they are able to serve (in the lunchroom). It’s milk versus a Coke.”

But kids and families say in the Tribune that a lot of students can’t stomach the meals offered at the school and wind up paying for it only to dump it in the garbage. And it turns out that the lunches some families would send are healthier, and cheaper, than the daily cost of the provided lunch.

Even if it were true that the food served by the school’s vendor is better than what kids would bring in from home or somewhere else, it remains inappropriately overbearing to dictate lunch fare.

Forcing kids to eat a premade meal doesn’t teach them a thing about making their own healthy choices, which, presumably, is what school is about. Amid a childhood obesity epidemic, one that Michelle Obama has made the focus of her national “Let’s Move!” campaign, it is vital that adults teach kids how to make decisions for themselves. They won’t be kids forever.

In Fairfax County, officials recently said they would bring back a low-fat version of chocolate milk. In fact school officials have been going back and forth on policies about various foods. Sieff wrote that at one point pretzels with salt were substituted for saltless ones. But, perhaps because those taste like cardboard, the decision was reversed.

All of this is far different from what goes on at the D.C. charter Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community School, where kids are immersed in a program to learn about healthy eating, complete with a garden and a food service run by award-winning chef Lisa Dobbs that gives students a variety of foods to choose from every day.

They can bring their own lunch, but most don’t want to and instead choose from foods such as tilapia encrusted with panko, boureks with beef or vegetables, and other stuff kids don’t commonly embrace. The one food Dobbs said kids have uniformly rejected is hummus because to them it looks like brown slop.

Of course not every school can find a Lisa Dobbs to run the food program. But they can do their homework about food and nutrition before instituting policies that don’t make a lot of sense.

And they should include students and their parents in on the deliberations on what kids eat at school, not only because it helps kids learn about nutrition and how to make their own healthy decisions. In the end, if kids dump the healthy food in the garbage and go back to class hungry, nobody is winning except the food company.

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By  |  12:02 PM ET, 04/12/2011

 
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