You Shall Eat Chicken Nuggets
Sara Palin makes my skin crawl. So my tendency is to discount anything that comes out of her mouth. This includes her declaration of Pennsylvania being a “nanny state run amok” when the schools tried to limit sweets at classroom parties.
At the heart of the issue is who gets to choose. What is the role of the school, and hence government, in the life of the family. Here my libertarian bent comes out – unless there is an imminent public safety issue at stake (inclusive of my arguments about immunization – so the bar is quite high) schools policy should always err on the side of the discretion of the parent.
To me, there is something fundamentally different about the paternalism one gets from behavioral economics – one that tries to nudge – and policies that just takes choice away. Yes, position the fruit so that kids eat more. But take away my right to choose what to feed my child when they attend a public school?
Apparently that is what some schools in Chicago are doing. Today I read an article entitled “Chicago Public School Bans Home-Packed Lunches”. Unless armed with a medical necessity, Little Village Academy refuses to allow students to bring into the school food from home. Now, I understand that among lower socio-economic populations the school lunches may be more nutritious for most of the kids most of the time compared to what they bring from home. Maybe. But what about the potentially large percentage of kids who bring healthier lunches then those served? And even if they were less nutritious, so what. It should be the parents choice.
Furthermore, food is a deeply cultural notion, as is the concept of what is health. What one person considers food another does not. What about diet restrictions based not upon health but culture or religion? Or is this a food equivalent to the French burka law? You will be a good American and eat your chicken nuggets!
And while what is biomedically healthy may seem like it is easy to determine, clearly nutrition is very complex and there is a lot of variance among experts as to what actually constitutes a healthy diet. Last night I started reading Nourishing Traditions, a book Tara brought home after yet another trip to the doctor to address candida outbreaks. I read the introductions which challenged much of the orthodoxy about a balanced diet. It contests the traditional food pyramid as being toxic, particularly the reliance on refined carbs and grains. It argues that these refined foods cause diabetes and obesity and heart disease. But the point here is that even among experts, there is a lot of disagreement about what constitutes healthy food.
Even if there was rigorous scientific consensus about healthy diets, as there is about climate change or the theory of evolution, I am far from convinced that a school system cam make unbiased or informed choices about what constitutes healthy food. Or even food itself? School administrations time and time again have proven to make very poor choices – from spying at students at home to allowing teachers to teach intelligent design.
Jamie Oliver recently had a TV program where we went into a public school to revel the atrocious diet that the school system declared nutritious. And he has a site dedicated to improving school “dinners” as they are called in the UK.
The other thing that really disturbs me about the Little Village Academy policy is the role of the private sector. Chartwells-Thompson is the name of the company that supplies the school lunches. They serve 2.5 million students on a daily basis. Yes their lunches adhere to USDA guidelines but does that translate into healthy food? Especially when profit margins incent the vendor to select foods based largely upon cost? And how can such a large scale enterprise deliver quality food – when locality is so central to food quality.
Next thing you know Chartwells-Thompson will be lobbying lawmakers to change lunch policy to serve their financial aims, much the same way private prisons in Arizona (Corrections Corporation of America) funneled money to get Bill SB1070 passed. It just gets really dirty here.
So given the track records of public schools in making decisions that are based upon science or the welfare of their students, I think I want to retain the right to decide what my children eat.