Thursday, February 10, 2011

Schools Banning Lunch Boxes?

From a rather defeated SustainaMom...

“Hi, I’m calling to ask about touring your school and the registration process for next year’s pre-K program,” I say into the phone.

After I jot down notes about tour dates and deadlines, I ask my real question: “And what about lunches? Can I send a lunch?”

Invariably, the answer is, “No, we don’t allow that.”

“With a doctor’s note?” I ask.

“We don’t allow lunches from home, but we can accommodate dietary restrictions like allergies,” I hear.


Seriously, I can’t feed my own child?

I have found one preschool that will let me send a lunch from home. “You have to send a fruit, a vegetable, a protein, a grain and a dairy — every day,” I was told. “If you can’t do that, you’ll have to come down here to feed your son every day.”

The director of that school explained that the state is very strict about the lunches.

But the FAQ section about Georgia’s pre-K program says that individual preschools set their own policies regarding lunches from home.

So I have to wonder if the schools just want the lunch money?

To be honest, the money isn’t even my biggest concern (and I do not say that lightly). Aside from the fact that my son is an extremely picky eater who would starve if faced with a school lunch and, as a result, misbehave, I object to someone else planning his meals with no input from me.

Will they buy organic milk? If they offer chocolate milk, will it have red food dye in it? What about the waste from all those individual milk cartons? Will the apples be organic? Did that cow eat grass or grain before it was turned into beef? Who is checking the bread label for HFCS? Were those beans packaged and shipped in a BPA-coated can?

Seriously, the only legitimate reason I can fathom for this lunch box restriction is food allergies. I joined a listserv about food allergies a couple of years ago, and I cried at some of the things those moms went through with their children, so I absolutely do see the need to protect those children.

However, I am really struggling with the thought that my child who has a diagnosed sensory-based feeding issue is being discriminated against. And I’m writing about this here because I am so frustrated with the idea that any parent would have to give up some oversight to their child’s diet in order to take advantage of the state-/lottery-funded pre-K program.

And that brings me to the other side of the dilemma. This program is primarily lottery-funded, not tax-funded. And the Pre-K classes are held at preschools not elementary schools. As a side note, some of these preschools receive tax subsidies — and they will not let younger kids bring lunches either as providing those balanced lunches is mandated for those subsidies. We’ve been down this road before.

Back to my point, preschool isn’t a right like public kindergarten is. If lunch money is a concern for the schools, do these non-public (though possibly subsidized) preschools have a right to enforce rules that make the program infeasible for my child? Again, the pre-K education is paid for through the state lottery, and the lunches are paid for by the parents.

I also want to say that I know those school lunches are a tremendous blessing for some families. I don’t want to do away with the programs, though I am glad to see that the USDA is moving for improvement. But I do think it is crazy to mandate something less than I want to provide — especially when all but the bread and milk would be thrown away every single day in our case.

What do you guys think — about school lunches in general or about parents being told they can’t send a lunch for their children? Also, what school lunch issues do you run into in other states/other grade levels?

As for us, we’re on the waiting list at the one pre-K that will allow lunches from home, and we’re registering at the same half-day church program where we’ve been packing our own lunches for two years. In my dream world, I wouldn’t even have to make this decision as I would be homeschooling, but a girl has to help pay the mortgage....


Amber @HomeschoolingVoyage said...

I really can't imagine. It isn't that my son has allergies or that I'm a control freak over organic only (which okay, I am, just a little) but the fact that you aren't "allowed" to feed your own child that makes me angry over this. It just says so much about control and what is important to them. Ick. We toured a preschool before deciding to homeschool that had fast food as their meals. Fast food! Fries and stuff! Good grief. I hope you get in on the waitlisted place.

Wendy said...

Do preschools have a right to enforce rules that make the program infeasible for my child?

I'm not sure that "right" is the correct word here. I don't know what word to use, but if the programs are not "mandatory", then, my answer is "yes." They have the "right" to do as they see fit, because you are making the choice to put your child in a preschool.

And you have the "right" to not choose their program (which is not true of public, compulsory education. Your child will go to the school in your district, unless you pay to send him/her to a private school or homeschool).

I don't know what your particular work situation is like, but maybe you could look into an educational co-op. If there's not one, maybe you could form one in your community. I know - like you don't have enough to do, right "grin". It's just that if you're running into this sort of proplem, perhaps there are other parents who feel the same way, and they might be interested/willing to split the cost with you for a nanny. You'd have to check your individual State statutes, but here in Maine an unlicensed home "daycare" can have up to six kids per adult - more if the children are older.

Up here, we also have what are called NAPS (non-approved private schools). Basically, it's a group of parents who get together and form a school. They form a Board and, basically, make the rules for the school (including hiring teachers ;) and volunteer their time to help out with things like administrative duties and building/grounds maintenance. We have a great example of such a school up here.

Whatever you decide, best of luck. It's tough being a parent ;).

Kate said...

I worked at a preschool in Ohio and watched the pendulum swing...the lunch programs are actually crazy expensive and the school I worked for ended up stopping their hot lunch program and having everyone bring bagged lunches. Most of the preschools in my area have gone to that now. I'm sorry for the situation you're describing and I can't believe that NONE of the schools will work with you. Even when my center had a lunch program, they would allow parents to send in bread (non-hfcs), organic milk, butter (non-margerine), etc. etc.
It's small comfort, but if a place is that inflexible, it's better to find that out before you give them your money and your child to be in charge of.

Kate said...

I worked at a preschool in Ohio and watched the pendulum swing...the lunch programs are actually crazy expensive and the school I worked for ended up stopping their hot lunch program and having everyone bring bagged lunches. Most of the preschools in my area have gone to that now. I'm sorry for the situation you're describing and I can't believe that NONE of the schools will work with you. Even when my center had a lunch program, they would allow parents to send in bread (non-hfcs), organic milk, butter (non-margerine), etc. etc.
It's small comfort, but if a place is that inflexible, it's better to find that out before you give them your money and your child to be in charge of.

Toni's Treehouse said...

This is horrifying to me. I used to work as a puppeteer and would frequently be offered school lunches. They were awful, and not something I would remotely consider feeding myself much less my child. We have plans to homeschool, but, of course, never know what may come up. In the event I had to send my child to school, I would do my best to find a school that would allow me to send his lunch or at least fed him food I deem acceptable. My head just will not accept someone telling you you're not "allowed." That's CRAZY!!!!

Frances said...

Wow! I had no idea! I don't believe anyone should have more authority over what their child eats than a parent (okay, a child has the ultimate say). As for your school that would allow it with a laundry list of what needed to be included: What about families that don't believe in eating grain? What about families that don't eat dairy? What about fructose intolerance? Our society as a whole knows so little about proper nutrition that's it's still pretty ridiculous to enforce a "one size fits all" lunch program.

Jessica said...

I don't even have any children and this makes me angry... mostly because I can't think of a good reason for why they wouldn't let you prepare your own child's lunch.

It doesn't even make sense to me that they would want the extra lunch money, since you would think that they would not have to put forth as much money for lunches if children brought sack lunch.

Is the food included in the tuition? The cynic in me says maybe they're making extra cash off of the lunches they serve.

I went to free preschool (half days) provided by my school district, but I don't know if districts do that anymore. Ours would let you go to the morning and afternoon classes if you needed to as well.


Green Bean said...

That is ridiculous! We are past preschool, thank goodness, because there are so many to choose from, the decisions are overwhelming and, well don't get me started but even with all the different preschools I've looked into for both of my boys, I've never heard of that! We did nix one preschool that provided their own snack - goldfish and the like.

Now, in elementary school (public), they take their own lunch though there is the option of hot lunch. At a mere $4.50 a pop, ouch, it is a rather healthy option. Often contains organic ingredients. Whole grain, what not.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Totally aside from the whole OMG THIS IS INSANE factor, with which I completely agree...

That sensory diagnosis could give you some clout in terms of requesting "accommodations" for your child; I don't know how it works for Pre-K, but if you have the diagnosis agreed-upon within your local school system (at least in my state), the private schools are required to adhere to the same laws, even if they are not required to fund them. (Again, not sure about Pre-K, but it's worth having the conversation.)

Worth a shot?

Ugh...good luck. Let us know how it comes out.

AmazinAlison said...


My son is gluten intolerant and allergic to corn. I have a hard enough time feeding him safe food let alone presuming that a school could do so and actually get him full w/o any cross contamination? And so, I cannot imagine that the issue is protecting kids from allergies, because allergies are so varied from person to person.

My son's preschool is a nut free zone, because several of the kids have serious nut allergies (one to peanuts, one to walnuts and one to almonds).

My guess would be that it has to do with nutrition and trying to ensure that kids get a balanced meal. I know from a friend who has volunteered in her son's kindy class at lunch, that some kids bring a bag of chips or a candy bar for lunch and that is it.

However, forcing acceptance of the school lunch and ignoring a medical or allergy related issue seems out of line. And, if all the preschools in your area do it (so it is the local culture) than I would think it could be a "rights" issue. If you want, you could always contact the ACLU and see what they have to say...

Earthdrummer said...

Absolutely nutty and unexceptable!
Have you thought about just homeschooling your littles? I mean, why subject him to that?

Anonymous said...

It is amazing to me that a school would take that stance, though not unbelievable. My daughters are teens now (15 & 17) and they have decided that packing is preferable to eating at school; the school menu is horrible with no nutritional value.
Thankfully, this public school does not intervene on this issue.

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

Ultra-lame but not entirely surprising. I am happy to say that I worked at a school that was low-income enough that we did not worry about lawsuits, and let parents bring homemade treats to parties. Unlike my sister's kids' schools, where all treats must be packaged food. The allergies and food safety stuff has gotten completely out of control. Plus, as someone who worked in schools, I can tell you that Jamie Oliver is absolutely correct: the state of school lunches is disgusting and depressing. I never would have eaten that junk, and was sad most of my students did. I'd be interested to know what they ARE serving at your pre-K.

Sustainamom said...

First, thanks everyone for what feels like moral support!

@Amber, Actually, with my son's feeding issues, we do indulge in non-organic foods if he's willing to try something new. Like you, the principle of the matter makes me as upset as the reality that he'd likely go hungry rather than try a new food in a classroom situation.

@Wendy, if this were strictly a "private" school issue, I'd be less upset. But this is a quasi-public program. In Georgia, the lottery funds pre-k and college scholarships. Technically this isn't public money, but it is treated similarly. So the schools are paid by the state lottery funds for pre-K education — and the program is touted as available to anyone. Granted, there aren't enough spots for everyone, so each school either does a first-come or a random drawing to assign spots. Anyway, that "quasi-public" part is what is so frustrating about this. The "education" is free to the kids but the private schools can make you pay for the lunches. (And schools charge $90 to $190/month for the meal plans.) The ONLY reason my son is in school is so that I have time to work, so I'm not in a position to work on an educational co-op, though I love the idea & very much appreciate the link & suggestion.

@Kate- re:inflexible, I thought the same thing. And I don't want to be the difficult parent & create any antagonism towards my child.

@Toni - I remember trying to eat school lunches in middle school so I'd fit in. They were horrible and I went back to my mom-made sandwiches very quickly!

@Frances, the schools assure me they can meet special dietary needs. I want to tell them my son prefers most fruits freeze-dried fruits because of the crunchy texture. I wonder if they'd special order his foods like we do. (Not that this is remotely eco-friendly. We celebrate if he moves to a fruit in its natural state!)

Sustainamom said...

@Jessica, some schools are charging as much as $190/month for meal plans. That is more than $8/day, so I can't help but think money has to be a factor for some schools.

@Green Bean, Maybe some of these schools that are charging so much ARE offering organic food! But it doesn't do us any good if he's too scared of the new food to try it :(

@Jenn, I agree there must be some hoops I could jump through to get this resolved. The two issues I have are 1) I'm afraid he'd bear the brunt of someone being frustrated about the situation and 2) we were denied health insurance when he was 2 because of the feeding therapy. Now that we're finally getting close to the mark to reapply for the more affordable insurance, I don't want any medical or school records popping up to cause us to have to continue paying 2x what we should for insurance coverage :(

But thank you for the encouragement. If my work situation were any more dire, I would have to do something.

@AmazinAlison, The schools are required to make lunches *available* (and some kids qualify for free lunches and need the balanced nutrition) so yes, the idea stems from the fact that some kids really do need better food options. However the schools are not prohibited by the state from allowing lunches from home. I've talked to a friend of a friend who taught pre-K and she said that since all the pre-K classes in my county are in private not public schools then there isn't a whole lot I can do. Plus, see my note to Jenn above. It's complicated :)

@Earthdrummer, when my little boy was born, I fully expected to look into homeschooling and hoped it would be for us. Unfortunately, our lives took a different path with this economy. It has taken all we have for me to be able to stay home with him as much as I have. He's been in half-day preschool four days a week this year and two days a week last year just so I could continue freelance work. (And as it turns out, he loves preschool and it has been very good for him even though I really had a hard time enrolling him originally.)

@Annette, if this were fully a public school issue, it would be easier to argue against. However, the pre-K classes in my county are administered through private preschools, which complicates matters.

To all, again, thank you! There are so many complicated factors surrounding this issue. I'll give you an update later this spring when we finally decide on a school. In the meantime, kindergarten better be easier than pre-K!!

SustainaMom said...

@Betsy, I know! As frustrating as this is to me, I can't imagine how freaked out parents of children with severe allergies must be?

Rosa said...

Is it a public pre-K program? If so I agree with everyone who says bringing a lunch is a reasonable accomodation. But if it's outside the cumpulsory school age, they might still be able to do it. You might have to work through the district's disability office, or eventually resort to a friendly school board member to make some waves for you, and that has it's own costs.

Private schools can do what they want, of course.

I haven't heard of this issue here, but my kid goes to public school. It would make me really angry.

Helena said...

I've never heard of such a thing, but my daughter is only two and I haven't looked into any kind of school for her yet, so maybe that's common here (FL) too and I just don't know it yet. I would be beyond frustrated in your situation. I hope you're able to get him into the school that allows you to send his lunch with him!


Tinkerpro said...

My kids are not in school anymore, but I do know that my dd's first few years in K-3 were unhappy for her at lunch time. We couldn't bring lunch, it was provided by the private school, the rule was, if you didn't eat your lunch you didn't get dessert. For lunch at least 2x a week was a piece of white bread with butter on it. Not toast. My DD HATES bread and butter, thus she wouldn't eat it, thus she didn't get dessert.

They would not accommodate her. The education was good, the food policy was horrible. Making food an issue is such a bad idea, and with what is being served should be a crime.


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