Little Village Academy, a public school in Chicago, has banned sack lunches. Unless they can produce a medical excuse, all students are required to purchase lunch in the school’s cafeteria or go hungry. Of course, as the principle explains, it’s for the good of the children.

“Nutrition wise, it is better for the children to eat at the school,” Carmona said. “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 with allergies and any medical issue, of course, we would make an exception.”

The message seems clear: parents will invariably stuff their kids with junk unless the benevolent hand of the state (gently) encourages better decisions. It’s a comfort that the principal believes the cafeteria food is of “excellent quality.” Mmm. Cafeteria food.

Even some parents are supportive.

Parent Miguel Medina said he thinks the “no home lunch policy” is a good one. “The school food is very healthy,” he said, “and when they bring the food from home, there is no control over the food.”

Parents are inadequate. Control is needed. Shut up and eat.

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell is the co-founder of Front Porch Republic. He is the Dean of Academic Affairs at Patrick Henry College and the author of several books including Power and Purity, The Limits of Liberalism, The Politics of Gratitude, and Localism in Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto (co-editor).


  1. 100% of the students at Little Village Academy qualify for free or reduced-price lunches from the Federal School Lunch Program. This means that at most, the families are at 185% of the poverty level, or $40,793 for a family of four. The most any of these kids are being charged for their lunch is 40 cents.

  2. Is this really a case of “the state” mandating “better decisions,” or is it instead a local authority simply making a decision intended to benefit those within that particular, local context? How might you differentiate the banning of poor-nutrition lunches from home / requiring the purchase of putatively nutritious school lunches and banning provocative clothing / requiring a school uniform?

  3. According to this article, 86% of the students at the school qualify for free or reduced price school lunches

    Anyone who has spent time around low-income urban families knows that the kids eat extremely unhealthy meals: fast food, heavily processed packaged food, soda, etc. Sometimes the parents (or more often, single mother) don’t think they can afford better food; sometimes they simply don’t know better.

    So, in these contexts, it IS true that the school officials are better at feeding the children than their parents. I don’t think the district thinks this is the ideal, but it’s better than the epidemic of obesity and undernourishment that is brought on by eating nothing but chips, cookies and soda for lunch.

  4. Does the kid who brings a PBJ on multigrain bread, a banana, and a couple oatmeal cookies get his lunch confiscated in just the same was as does the kid who brings Cheetos and a Coke? In other words, is there a zero-tolerance policy in place? Just wonderin’.

  5. Ken’s question as to what, if anything, differentiates this decision (which I will admit, initially rubbed me wrong when I first read about it as well) from a decision to require students to wear uniforms to school is a question worth asking, and answering.

  6. Well, for one thing, most public schools don’t require students to wear uniforms. They just restrict the range of outrageous things kids can wear. So, by analogy, they might try to restrict the range of outrageous things kids can bring for lunch. But that would be more trouble than it’s worth, like most dress codes that don’t basically amount to uniform mandates, and kids would still eat junk (just as they still wear outrageous clothes).

    As often, the wisdom of this decision can’t be evaluated in isolation from what it actually is: that is, is the school actually giving the kids good food? Is it likely to be better for them than what they’ll bring from home? Keep in mind that in most public schools serving kids of lower socio-economic status, the cafeteria food is likely to be no better or worse for them than what they would bring from home. But if this school can actually do better, then why not? I don’t see why we should think that we can reject or approve of this decision simply on the principle that the school shouldn’t get to tell the kids what to eat because it’s ‘coercive’ (can we call that the ‘libertarian fallacy’?) or on the alternative principle that the school can go ahead and tell the kids what to eat because they can tell them what to wear and what to read (the ‘authoritarian fallacy,’ perhaps?).

  7. Russell and Ken: That does seem to be the operative question, doesn’t it?

    First, I think we can agree that tyranny (in this case, benevolent and administrative) is tyranny whether it occurs on a small or a large scale.

    Second, I do not think it is beyond our powers of reasoning to draw a meaningful qualitative distinction between mandating a particular code of dress and prohibiting parents from feeding their children as they see fit. The first is concerned with ensuring that public schools remain ordered and peaceful, free of unnecessary distractions. In that case, Ken’s question would be exceptionally relevant: we could critique the federal government for prescribing a particular dress code that applies everywhere, but we might applaud a local administration for making a decision that best suits its particular local context. The second policy, while understandable in this context, is concerned with nothing of the sort but is rather a fine example of the sort of paternalism that we’ve come to expect from government at all levels. It’s one thing to encourage parents to have their children partake of cafeteria food in the interest of better nutrition; it’s even acceptable for the school to send home pamphlets lauding the nutritional superiority of its meals. It’s another thing altogether to prohibit (legally?) little Johnny’s mom from sending him to school with PB&J, a candy bar, and an affectionate note altogether. I can’t see that is in any way a laudable policy.

    Two things we can learn: at least we now publicly acknowledge that we view our public schools as glorified daycare centers in loco parentis, and at least we now are coming to realize what happens when we grant administrative mechanisms authority over more spheres of our lives (the purview of public education now, apparently, involves affirmative public health projects).

  8. I might add tangentially that I’m deeply skeptical of the proposition that public school cafeterias are providing wholesome, nutritious meals. Or maybe a lot has changed since I was in grade school not so terribly long ago.

  9. While I agree that it seems rather unnecessary to ban homemade lunches and that the alternatives that Rob mentions are more reasonable, I alternate between amusement and worry that otherwise apparently intelligent people will call such a rule “tyranny” and deride as it “government paternalism.” For one thing, this seems to be a policy decision made by a single school, not some sort of state or federal mandate. So presumably the actual people affected by the rule can have some role in changing it if they are opposed to it. If you think that’s tyranny, you clearly need to go back and re-read the Politics. I fail to see how coercive measures aimed at securing “order and peace” in schools are less “tyrannical” than measures aimed at promoting students’ health or their knowledge of history or biology. I worry that we now find it so strange that one of the things our schools should do is teach people about healthy food, give them some, and perhaps not allow students to do things that are detrimental to their health. Perhaps Rob, like Sarah Palin, just doesn’t really believe that anything we eat could really be bad for us so long as our parents let us eat it. But it seems to me that one of the things that a respectable educational institution can legitimately do is refuse to allow students to stuff themselves full of junk on their premises. I doubt that a ban is either necessary or especially conducive to the end, but I can’t see why anybody’s dear rights to liberty are being violated any more than they are when 18 year old students aren’t permitted to smoke cigarettes in the school parking lot — or 16 year olds, for the matter; after all, some parents let their teenagers smoke.

  10. I fail to see how coercive measures aimed at securing “order and peace” in schools are less “tyrannical” than measures aimed at promoting students’ health or their knowledge of history or biology. I worry that we now find it so strange that one of the things our schools should do is teach people about healthy food, give them some, and perhaps not allow students to do things that are detrimental to their health.

    Because it is beyond the competence of a school’s authority, which is not co-extensive with that of the state.

  11. A few more random thoughts about this issue, which I admit still bothers me, though I’m unsure of the best way to articulate exactly why:

    1) Little Academy appears to be a small magnet school, serving a high poverty, high illiteracy, and–one could easily conclude–high broken-home area. Since this is a local decision, and definitely not a district-wide, much less state-wide one, surely that should affect our viewing of it, should it not?

    2) What is the “competence of the school’s authority”? If we are looking at a significant break-down in family structure, civic order, and therefore (as we who write at this site should well know) communal responsibility and collectively passed-on knowledge, do we simply throw our hands in the air and write off a particular bunch of kids entirely? If we don’t (and I don’t think many people here are heartless enough to say “yes”), then what are the bounds that should be established on the authorities which step into that vacuum? I can imagine a plausible argument which says that a principal, in assuming that kind of otherwise absent authority, can ban smoking on school grounds, or ban gang clothing on school grounds, but can’t ban lunches brought from outside school grounds…but being able to imagine it isn’t the same as articulating it. Does anyone here want to try?

    3) Of course, there is always the old stand-by “follow the money.” It’s possible that this issue shouldn’t be viewed through a lens that focuses on issues of authority and responsibility, but rather on corruption. The USDA provides subsidies to schools for every student who eats school-provided lunches. By banning food from home, perhaps Little Village Academy is simply trying to boost its bottom-line? Someone ought to look into the money here.

  12. I agree with the general thrust of many of the comments. Local problem=local decision. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is the truly profound impact that a pathetic diet has not only on an individual child’s ability to learn but on their behavior. So what a child eats impacts their fellow classmates when they act up, get sullen, etc. My wife is a first grade teacher and it is remarkable how important basic nutrition is to her well being and that of the class. This seems like a well thought out and community-oriented decision. The farther up the ladder we go in efforts to control behavior, the more dubious my attitude.

    Food for thought: Perhaps the federal government’s role should be reorienting farm and food policy so our political economy does not artificially incentivize unhealthy eating. The states can administer the implementation of basic nutrition education in class curriculum (I’m not talking about anything too major or distracting). The local schools can decide how intense to be about more drastic policies like this one.

  13. As someone who has taught in a charter school in a low-income Chicago neighborhood I find all this conversation very interesting. I would like to support G. Koefeod’s comment. The nutritional intake of the students has a direct influence on their behavior. In addition, many of these students live in food deserts where there is minimal access to truly healthful dietary choices. The school at which I taught provided organic produce, banned all sweet treats and sugary drinks (no pop or cookies or candy were allowed in the building) and they offered fully balanced meals that the teachers enjoyed eating.

    On top of all of that, many Chicago schools are going to locally-grown products whenever possible. As a magnet school there is a high likelihood that the principal has created a program that provides genuinely nutritional options for the students. Then, for at least the 8 hrs that they are there, they get balanced nutrition. And there is a chance that their tastes can be re-shaped to really enjoy real food. Then again, they may just eat the potatoes and fruit and pig out on junk food at home. That is entirely up to their parents 🙂

  14. Thoughtful responses, all.

    Personally, it seems to me that T. Chan’s reference to the “competence of the public school” hasn’t been sufficiently answered or clarified. Thus far, I can extract a couple of possible answers from preceding comments: within the competence of the public school (which, as has been duly noted, is not coextensive with that of the state) is a) anything related to securing “order” in the school given domestic disintegration (Russell) and b) anything that conduces to inculcating the “best behavior” and proper comportment to learning on the part of student (Rebecca et al.). These are fair points, but am I alone in thinking that this grants tremendous license to school boards (or even local schools)? Think of the infinity of behaviors that can be controlled under the rubric of encouraging good behavior and effective learning!

    In any case, I never deemed this act “tyrannical,” though I implied that it could be. And, of course, the point that we should welcome attempts by local authorities to “improve” their local communities is well-taken. But on the other hand, regulations such as this one must be viewed, in my opinion, in the overall context and pattern of administrative governance in contemporary America: it’s not as if this is an isolated example of an isolated school taking limited but necessary measures to manage an isolated problem. Rather, this occasion could be regarded as another in a long train of abuses on the part of our public schools and administrative bureaucracy in general (which tends to be no more palatable or efficient at the local level than the state or national): here, a school is controlling dietary intake by students and limiting parental prerogatives. There, schools are pushing for year-round attendance, longer school days, and *gasp* “4k.” Elsewhere, dress codes, “colorful” sex education, speech codes. And if a precedent is set for coercively managing student diets is accepted, what else may schools be entitled to dictate regarding the otherwise personal lives of their students? So, regardless of the advisability of this particular policy, I really can’t bring myself to cast it in the rosy light of localism and subsidiarity.

    To me, all this smacks not-so-subtly of planning–social planning–and if there’s anything of which localists should be suspicious, it’s planning.

  15. My kids generally practiced a bit of discretion in this school lunch business, scanning the published menu for the week and identifying those days when the fare was to be edible and those when it was little better than hog slop and requesting a lunch made by either the Concept or me on that day. Of course, when the old man was lunch chef, they were prone to having little paper notes with the message “Shape Up” or “Your Head aint just a hat rack” and “Speak Up” slipped between the cheese and ham and this always caused a bit of levity at the lunch table but then, the Concept is a master chef and so Cafeteria food was never a relief over what was cooked at home.

    Suffice to say that there is an increasing population of de-facto State serfs who are told, cradle to grave that they are helpless and so must be “protected” by the beneficent State. Funny that this same State runs a bunko game with a centralizing power elite who are conducting themselves more and more like a freebooting City State inhabited by Sore Winners.

    Perhaps a school lunch will placate those on the bottom rung so that their recriminations do not cause problems for the recriminations borne by the Swells.

    Still, if virtue were a goal of any healthy society, one should be pleased that the academy might actually feed their charges better than the home but then, a society whose homes are poor providers is well beyond the reach of virtue.

  16. If the school cannot convince the parents to send better lunches (and they have the means to send better lunches) maybe the school needs to hire new people who are better educators. Or maybe the school authorities need an attitude adjustment. It’s hard to say based on the information that’s presented. But I am not in favor of parental choice only when parents make decisions that are approved by central authorities. (I was going to say higher authorities instead of central, but then realized that parents are the higher authorities.)

    Not to say that banning certain foods is wrong. I’d hate to have a room full of kids who are on a sugar high. But then, we could take it a step further and mandate that any misbehaviors and non-conformism be treated through medication.

  17. I researched a bit, and a chef named Tony ashanti says,” We need to cook good food, but also teach them ( our children) to appreciate more than just a Ho-Ho or a twinkie.

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