Photo courtesy USDA.gov
Recently, I’ve struggled with the decision to say something about two links that have been circulating pretty widely around the old interwebs: This one, about a mom who was sent home a note from her kid’s preschool reminding her that the school’s policy bans packed lunches from home; and this one, about a mom who was sent a note informing her of a $10 fine being imposed on her because the school supplemented her kids’ lunches with Ritz Crackers to make it more “balanced.” I almost didn’t say anything at all, but today Bettina of The Lunch Tray posted her wonderful and balanced response, and a few people encouraged me to add my thoughts. So here’s what I think.
Fellow parents, this may come as a shock, but the stuff that’s going on in these stories? It’s not about us.
It’s also not about the families featured in these articles. Sure, these incidents happened TO them, or at least they are alleged to have happened to them. (I’m no journalist and I’m staying far from the realm of “this must be fact because it was on the internet.”) But were these notes from school actually about those families? No. They were about something much larger.
It’s somewhere on the spectrum of annoying-to-enraging to consider the fact that your kid might be caught in a situation at some point where they can’t bring a home packed lunch, or have Ritz crackers thrust upon them without your consent, because of a meddlesome school or state mandate. It would be tempting, I think – just based on what I know of human nature – to feel as if schools and governments that do such addle-brained things as insisting upon packaged crackers to supplement a lovely lunch must do so because they create idiotic and draconian policies in a vacuum. It can feel very good to allow our imaginations to vent in that way. But the reality is that when schools create and enforce policies, they’re usually doing so in reaction to an issue that affects them, not in prevention of an imaginary boogeyman. In other words, they make rules and stick by them because they are trying to solve a real problem.
Your kid’s packed lunch isn’t that problem. Neither were the packed lunches of any of the kids referenced in these viral tales of nanny state cafeteria intrusion. That problem, friends, is the problem of a large number of other kids who don’t have anybody standing up to take a good look at their nutrition and well-being unless the school does it.
See, in general – and I’m being purposely quite general here, because I have not looked deeply into the socioeconomic structures at work in the specific schools in question – when a school program (especially a state-run preschool) has a strict requirement around lunches, it’s because they are a program that exists to serve a disproportionately large number of students who are not food-secure at home. Their school doesn’t just educate those kids; it helps them to survive. Because of the financial burdens associated with feeding all those hungry kids, the schools and programs receive government funding to assist them with providing free food to their students. And in order to continue to receive that level of funding, the school has to continue to demonstrate that they are using it to serve a consistent level of need. They need to keep kids enrolled in the lunch program at an acceptable rate, because if they don’t, the money they receive for the kids who need it could go away.
So when I hear about a parent who got a note reminding them of a school policy that is in force, which does not allow for home-packed lunches unless a doctor has expressly recommended that course of action, I don’t think there’s a nanny state coming for MY kid’s tuna sandwich. I think there’s a school that needs to keep its free lunch program strong and vital for all the other kids.
As to the Ritz crackers: It’s a different version of the same thinking. Again, this is most likely to be the type of policy you’d see in a school that has many economically disadvantaged students. But because this school is trying NOT to be the school that people yell and scream about on the internet for its rejection of home-packed lunches, it may allow them – with the requirement that they meet the standards that would be set for a school-provided lunch. In this case, that policy would not be in place because the school is necessarily thinking about your kid’s turkey sandwich and carrot sticks; they’re thinking about the kid next to them, whose parents didn’t sign up for the free lunch program, but who continually shows up to school with a bag of Doritos and a Yoo-hoo as their “home-packed lunch.”
What if the headlines had been “School Enforces Policy that Provides Meals to Hungry Students” and “School Supplements Child’s Snack-Cake Lunch from Home with Sandwich and Apple?” If the tables were turned to show how these policies can positively impact students, I suspect none of us would be particularly upset. I suspect we wouldn’t be raging about nanny state intrusions. In fact, if we were in a lunchroom where we saw, day after day, kids eating Skittles and Coke for lunch, we might actually start to shake our fists and wave our banners and say “Somebody ought to do something about that problem!”
Well, somebody HAS. And that somebody is the school. And yes, sometimes a perfectly good home-packed lunch might get caught in the crossfire, because systems are not perfect and neither are the people who are charged with implementing them. But rending our garments and wailing all over the internet about the injustice of such a situation is a little too precious for me. It’s short-sighted. And it makes the whole thing about us.
We nutrition-minded wholesome-food-providing parents want to make the world work better for us and our kids wherever we can, and that’s why we have spirited debates about junk food parties at school and soccer snacks and we do what we can in our own communities to keep the environment as healthy as possible for all kids. That’s all good stuff. What we need to watch out for, though, is that our zeal for the common good REMAINS zeal for the common good, not zeal to construct a bubble of perfection for our own children. Providing a healthy school snack for all the kids = a nice gesture that benefits everyone. Taking to the internet to badmouth a policy that feeds lots of hungry kids, but mildly inconvenienced you = missing the forest for the trees.
I’ve seen food insecurity, up close and personal. I’ve personally done a week’s worth of grocery shopping for a desperate family with a meager grocery gift card, and brought them bags of Easy Mac and Rice a Roni and white flour bagels and store-brand crackers with peanut butter of such poor quality that it might not even have been actual “peanut” or “butter” (discuss amongst yourselves). I’ve cried while doing that shopping and forced a smile while delivering the results. I’ve thought, the whole time, that I was darned grateful that the kids were going to school during that week because at school somebody would give them a semi-square hot meal, and I’ll tell you straight up that I never once worried about whether or not that semi-square meal would include Ritz Crackers. I’ve watched students of mine in an inner city stop at the bodega to get their food for the day with the little bit of pocket change they had, and been relieved when they chose hard rolls with butter and a chocolate milk because it was better than yesterday’s haul of candy and soda. I’ve handed cookies to toddlers standing in food pantry lines and been happy that in the world of day-old bread, boxed dinner, and a stingy canned-veg allotment they were living in, they could have a few bites of something sweet that I, and most of my friends, would take for granted.
So when I hear about these stories, and these policies, I think of how hard those schools must be trying to solve the problems facing their students. Enormous problems that have no good answer, other than to just do the best we can to get a real meal into kids who might not see another one until the next day’s lunch. I think it’s a shame that we have to try so hard, and I think we have a long way to go to feed everyone the kind of food that would be optimal, but what a blessing that we CAN feed those kids.
Ritz crackers in a lunch look very different, depending on which side of the fence you’re looking from. We who can afford the luxury of outrage over a cracker should pause, at this time of year of all times, to be grateful for our excellent fortune. It’s awfully nice, if you think about it, to be able to get upset over someone providing you with food you don’t need. Wouldn’t you say so?