As a brand new school mum, I’ve recently discovered that schools have assumed the role of the Lunch Box Police. Every morning tea and lunch is a test to see if kids and their parents have faithfully followed the laws of healthy eating.
It’s a nice idea, but it’s questionable whether this has anything to do with health. In fact, in the quest to promote nutrition, schools may unintentionally be damaging kids’ relationship with food.
One school in Brisbane is so strict that the children have to show their lunch boxes to the class each morning. I know of one child who is so anxious about having ‘bad’ food in his lunchbox that he doesn’t want to go to school.
Another school in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs was conducting food inspections at the school gate, prohibiting ‘junk food’ from entering the school grounds. Some enterprising pre-teens had an early lesson in supply and demand and realised that prohibition is a golden marketing opportunity. They started a black market trafficking doughnuts behind the school shed.
“What more evidence to do you need that food policing by schools is dangerous?” asks Clinical Psychologist Louise Adams. “It’s teaching kids to hide their eating and to binge eat.”
Adams who runs Treat Yourself Well Sydney, a healthy weight management clinic, says that the risks of schools having food policies far outweigh the benefits.
“From the US research, we can see that this sort of food policing has not resulted in a reduction of body weight in children,” she says.
“As a psychologist specialising in this area, all I can see happening is that children are developing a fear of food. Fear is not going to make children healthy; it’s just going to make their relationship with food disturbed.”
The food rules of most schools appear to be less extreme than the examples above, but they are still inappropriate, if not damaging.
At two of the primary schools in my inner-Melbourne suburb, children are only allowed to eat fruit, vegetables and yoghurt for morning tea. This means that by lunchtime the kids are often starving. This is hardly conducive to learning.
But even worse, it’s teaching children not to trust their bodies, and to develop an almost hysterical fear of certain foods.
One friend packed a biscuit made by grandma for her daughter’s morning tea. Her daughter came home feeling embarrassed that she had ‘bad’ food in her lunch box.
“I put one biscuit in, not six,” says my friend. “What’s missing from this situation is the love and care that grandma put into making special biscuits for her granddaughter.”
I’ve put a lot of effort into teaching my daughter to listen to her body and to decide when she is hungry and when she is full. If she’s hungry and wants to eat two sandwiches for morning tea, then I encourage it. I don’t tell her that she should ignore her appetite and only eat carrot sticks.
And we never discuss food in moral terms. There’s no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ food in our house. Consequently, there’s no shame or guilt.
But the food policies of these schools undermine our efforts as parents to help our kids develop healthy relationships with food.
It’s also a stretch well beyond the school’s realm of authority. As a parent, what goes into my child’s lunch box should be my decision. It’s based on our family values, my intimate knowledge of my child’s current appetite, preferences, and wellbeing, our family budget, and what’s in the cupboard.
So long as it doesn’t threaten the wellbeing and health of other children — as, say, peanuts and nuts do — then it shouldn’t be the concern of the school.
Coincidently, Adams’ daughter came home from her school on Sydney’s northern beaches just last week, distressed because she had a muffin for lunch and she was told that it was unhealthy.
“My daughter was told that she should only eat fruit and vegetables and there was such shame on her face, like she’d really done something terrible,” Adams says.
“Kids go from just eating food and being in tune with their bodies, to being scared and feeling worried that they are doing something wrong. This is the breeding ground for an eating disorder.”
Adams says that schools should not be delivering any health messages about food to children.
“Kids are very black and white. Their capacity for nuance is not developed. If we tell them that something is good and something is bad, they believe that absolutely. Then they relate it to themselves, that they are then a good or bad person.’
“Maybe we as parents need some support and help with how to provide a variety of foods to our kids, but it’s psychologically damaging and unnecessary to discuss it with children.”
There is no doubt that the schools mean well and they are implementing their food policies with the best of intentions. But given that school food policies have not resulted in a reduction of childhood obesity and that eating disorders are skyrocketing, it’s time for schools to examine if they are actually contributing to the problems they are trying to solve.