Lunchbox politics

29 Sep

Our daughter started public school this month. A veteran of full-time daycare since she was a baby, the transition has been relatively gentle. The biggest change has been having to pack her lunch every day — a task that I soon realized is not free from political controversy and authoritative judgment.


Kiddo’s first school lunch

I remember my school lunches well — often a cheese and lettuce sandwich, a juice box, some fruit and a treat. Remember Fruit Roll-Ups? I think I “ate” one every day for at least a decade. And my brother drank so much apple juice, we were convinced it was flowing in his veins. Neither of us has any major health problems as a result.

Food shame

I grew up in a Jewish home with a father who cooked healthy and inventive from-scratch meals. I soon developed a sophisticated palette and the willingness to taste anything. But my lunches were very typical of the 1980s. And they would be the subject of shame if I packed the same items in my kid’s lunch bag.

To be fair, my kid’s school is fairly laid back when it comes to lunch rules. Nuts are banned due to allergies and juice “is discouraged.” So far, I have not been sanctioned for any of the food that I have sent for kiddo to eat. But I recently started a thread on a feminist parenting board about lunch rules and was shocked by what I heard.

Under the guise of “preventing obesity” or “promoting healthy food,” parents and kids are being surveilled and shamed for packing “unhealthy” food. And it’s unacceptable.

Here are some of the stories I have been hearing:


Food dutifully separated to meet the child’s demands

  • Children being forced to eat their lunches in a specific order.
  • Kids being seated at a separate, “special” table if the teacher deems their lunch to be “healthy.”
  • Children having their lunches confiscated from them and replaced with a school-approved bagged lunch (without the parents’ permission).
  • Long lists of “rules” that parents must obey when packing lunches, including no juice, no pudding, no chocolate (even chocolate chips in a muffin), nothing “with sugar.”
  • No gluten in one school (seriously), because some kids have intolerances (not allergies, intolerances).
  • Teachers telling kids that the food in their lunch box is “bad” or unhealthy, and those kids quickly becoming anxious about whether their lunch would pass the test at school.

Obesity panic

I have long worried that the obsession with “childhood obesity” would lead to fat-shaming of young children. Just today, an article came across my feed about feared obesity in toddlers. BABIES. And yes, even a baby was subjected to the dehumanizing “headless fatty” photo.

This shit has got to stop. If schools want to encourage healthy eating, they can start a breakfast program or offer baskets of fruit and vegetables for kids who need them (our school does this). Encouraging physical activity and teaching about nutrition can be done without shaming parents and kids. So much of this is pure classism.

And can we talk about the juice panic for a moment? I get it. Eating fruit is better than drinking juice. Water is best. But when this Toronto school banned juice boxes, it went too far.

My friend Andy Inkster is a single father and had this to say about juice hysteria:

Juice boxes are so totally completely about class. If you’re broke/poor and a pack of  10 juice boxes costs $3 on sale and will last two weeks because it’s easier to say “Hey,  these are for school” and they’re shelf stable, so you can hide them if you need to, or  freeze them, and of you buy a 2 litre of juice, it’s heavier to carry home, and besides, the kids will drink it all tonight. That reusable juice box thing with the straw costs $2 at the dollar store but you didn’t have time to go there this week, and probably not until after next week. Besides, you bought one last week but junior lost it and it was only used twice, so that didn’t save you any money, really.

If you buy two of those ten packs on sale, that’s juice for lunch for kid for a month. And juice itself is about class. Because the more privileged kids parents can  say “Hey, here’s your $15 metal water bottle, drink tap water, it’s good for you, juice will rot your teeth.

But as a poor parent, you know juice has vitamins and that’s important, right? And besides, you don’t buy apples because sometimes they go bad before anyone eats them and at least this way the kids won’t die of scurvy. And it shows you’re a good parent and care about nutrition and you’re not so poor you can’t afford to feed your kids right.

Besides, it’s faster to shove a juice box in the lunch box, and when you’re trying to get your kids out the door and off to school on your own before running back a 10 minute  walk the other way to catch the bus to work, that two minutes finding the juice bottle and refilling it is time you don’t have.

We talk with our daughter about the importance of “growing foods” and insist that she eat at least one serving of vegetables a day. But we do not assign “good” or “bad” judgment to specific food items. We do not use the words “calories” or “diets.”

When kiddo begged me to include a few heart-shaped ginger cookies in her lunch yesterday, I did. Because food is about so much more than nutrition. Learning to eat well is also about learning how to enjoy treats.

And if any teacher tries to tell me that I cannot give my kid a cookie, they can kiss my fat ass.


7 Responses to “Lunchbox politics”

  1. Lz McDermott (@LzMcDermott) September 29, 2016 at 7:01 pm #

    The day 3 of JK we got a note saying Andrew had had a couple of outbursts at kindergarten. The first was because he became very upset when the teacher told him he had to eat his sandwich before the part of his lunch he wanted to eat first, probably pretzels. He was yelling and being out of line. I didn’t care what order he ate his lunch, but he does have to listen to the teachers so we talked about listening, then I gave him cheese and crackers and no sandwich for a few days so I wouldn’t set him up to fail. Now I pack the sandwich (if I send one) in a place he sees before the “snack” part of of his lunch. On a related note I’m pretty glad I have a kid who was willing to speak up about eating the thing he wanted then learned that there is a time and place for getting things your way and that yelling doesn’t get you what you want unless there is parental exhaustion.

    • Queer Femme Mama September 30, 2016 at 5:45 am #

      I have funny feelings about this and also about the sticker they get if they finish their lunch. On one hand, I don’t like food policing. But on the other hand, they are 4 and my kid is a space cadet and needs to be reminded to eat her “growing food.”

      • Voltron of Failure (@mattrose) September 30, 2016 at 6:07 am #

        They get a sticker for finishing their lunch? I’ve never seen that one…

      • Queer Femme Mama September 30, 2016 at 6:09 am #

        Yup, D came home with a tiny sticker on her hand yesterday and told me that this was why.

  2. Misfit Matriarch September 30, 2016 at 10:34 am #

    I got a note home for too many veggies and how the teacher heroically gave my daughter a bagel instead.

  3. TS October 2, 2016 at 10:03 am #

    Juice boxes are about class? Says the people who have zero idea of what it’s like to be poor

    The poor kids in my Toronto neighbourhood didn’t get sent to lunch with juice boxes. They got sent to school with nothing

    I was thought of as uppity for having a jacket dedicated to rainy days. They were sent to school with garbage bags with arm holes cut out (the ghetto raincoat)

    Please don’t try to paint juice boxes as a poverty issue. Every family I know with kids has them regardless of income

    Your friend Andy sounds like an elitist douchebag

  4. Mellissa September 22, 2017 at 8:37 am #

    When I was growing up my sister and I always received free lunches from the school because our mum couldn’t afford to send lunch with us. Anyway we eventually both went to Mesa Junior High and were still receiving free lunches. Well at this school the “drink” that they served was always a thick milk shake, chocolate or vanilla. We both love chocolate and this would have been a dream come true for us if it hadn’t been for one tiny detail… The milk shakes were made separately for students who could pay for their lunches and for those who were on the free lunch program. If you received free lunch you were given a shake made who knows how long before lunch started. Naturally in the Arizona heat it had melted and formed a thick dry skin on top with all these little bubbles in it. Students whose parents paid for their meals were made a fresh cold shake as they stood there. A classmate once bought me a shake and it tasted so good. Nothing at all like the ones I had to choke down everyday. Plus this was always a very visible sign of whose family had money and whose family was poor. Humiliating.

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