Should Parent-Packed Lunches Be Regulated by Schools?

London's governing Coalition is taking on a reform project for school lunch nutrition, and parents could find themselves forced to buy into it. The Telegraph's Graeme Paton reports that restaurateurs Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent think the greater threat to kids' diet might not be what the schools sell, but rather what parents pack.

Dimbleby and Vincent are the founders of the Leon restaurant franchise. The Leon chain sells pre-packaged fast food, but its nutritional standards are much higher than classic American fast food. Leon codes ingredients for people with food sensitivities and rates dishes with a glycemic index; the restaurant also maintains a plan for environmental sustainability. Because its twin emphases are on boxed meals and healthy diet, Dimbleby and Vincent were asked to head up the task force to redesign British school meals.

In suggesting that schools discourage or ban lunches sent from home, Dimbleby explains, they are trying to turn around a failing cafeteria system. Standards for school food dropped so low that many parents stopped letting their children buy hot food. When schools have to maintain kitchens but cannot count on a large base of student customers, they struggle to keep up standards of fresh ingredients. Dimbleby explained that government spending would not need to increase if parent spending changed.

"What we need to do is lift uptake from 40 per cent to 80 per cent over five years to make school meals solvent again," he said. "Rather than ask government to subsidise a structurally bust system, we want the system to become solvent by getting more customers to pay for school dinners."

The advisory team doesn't see the economic reason as the only one for disallowing parents' packed choices, although it may be the most important. They believe that Britain's children need to be re-educated on the purpose and scope of food. Compulsory school dinners would be one way to convince them to eat differently.

Britain's school reform plans already include mandatory cooking classes for all children under 14. Professional chefs will design a cooking curriculum that will teach children how to make at least 20 different kinds of food. Reformers hope that these skills will carry into adult life, and that the next generation will eat more vegetables and not struggle with obesity as much.

Lunches from home may be healthy, but Dimbleby points out that parents may have a mistaken idea that food sent from home is automatically healthier.

"Because of the criticism school dinners underwent, there is a legacy in our minds as parents that you are going to feed your kids bad food if you give them school dinners," he said. "But that is not true because scientific analysis shows cooked meals are healthier than packed lunches."

Criticizing parents, he said that lunches from home may be filled with processed foods, baked sweets, fatty foods, and candy. If students were not permitted to snack on chocolate and sweet drinks, they might be more willing to eat the vegetables that the cafeterias are now serving. He also asked schools to consider not permitting students to leave the campus to buy food at local fast food restaurants.

In Scotland this month, a private primary school asked parents not to send lollipops in packed lunches. Teachers cited dental problems and potential injuries from lollipop sticks or choking. The USDA is also tackling "competitive" foods — meaning less-healthy options that compete with more nutritious foods — that are sold from vending machines or in fundraising events.

So far, the American push for school lunch reform, with rare exceptions, has not extended to regulating home-packed lunches.

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