When my son was in third grade, he came home to tell me that one of the lunch aides at his school had complained that he only had “snacks” in his lunch box. She suggested he should have come to school with healthier options.
“Maybe you should start packing me sandwiches again, Mom,” he said, half-joking, but obviously unhappy with being judged in this way.
The problem with his suggestion was that every sandwich I had made for him in the history of his elementary school career had gone untouched. He ate sandwiches just fine at home, but school was a different story. I’m not really sure why that was, but he was a very picky eater at the time. While I could get him to eat somewhat healthfully at home, there was something about eating lunch in the cafeteria that just did not agree with him.
Maybe it was the strong smells, the crowds, the fact that 200 loud AF kids were packed into a small space? Whatever it was, at the time, the only things I could get him to eat were snacks. You know, pretzels, rice cakes, granola bars, an occasional cheese stick. Nothing too horrible, but certainly nothing resembling a meal.
And if he didn’t eat those things, He. Would. Not. Eat. At. All. I had tried other lunch options over the years and they’d failed miserably. There were too many times that he’d come home having not eaten a bite all day, so I did what I needed to do and packed him what he would eat.
Of course, this lunch aide didn’t know any of that. And while her comment didn’t bother me that much, it did get under my skin, especially because I could tell that my son felt some shame about what happened.
The whole thing left me wondering why people have the audacity to voice their opinions about this kind of thing. First of all, you are looking at one meal this kid is eating. You have no idea why the meal looks the way it does, what else the kid eats, and the particular circumstances of that kid’s life.
Unless the kid brought something seriously spoiled or harmful in some way, it should be absolutely be no concern for a school official. In my opinion, the only food-related thing a school should be able to regulate is whether kids can bring particular allergens to school (and if this is a rule, you should take it seriously, because allergies can be deadly).
At the time, I thought I was the only one whose kid had been questioned about their food choices at school. But I am far from alone. Since then, I have heard many stories of parents who have been scolded and shamed in similar ways.
Case in point: In 2017, blogger and activist Melinda Tankard Reist posted a note from her friend’s child’s teacher, essentially shaming the child for bring chocolate cake into school. The post was shared on Reist’s Facebook page, where it quickly went viral.
WARNING: Read this and prepared to be ENRAGED.
In the post, Reist shares a picture of the note her friend’s child received after bringing a piece of chocolate cake into school that day. Adorned with an emergency-red frowning face on top, the note reads: “You child has chocolate cake from the Red Food Category today. Please choose healthier options for Kindy.”
In the post accompanying the pic, Reist writes, “My friend (mother of 8 healthy children, what follows relating to no. 7) received this today from her 3 year old’s kindy.”
OK, so this was a three-year-old who brought one piece of chocolate cake to school that day. How is this even a freaking thing? One assumes that this was the first time the kid got the note, so obviously this wasn’t a daily occurrence. And even if it was, who cares?
And yeah, I think that if this was this mom’s 7th (of 8!) kid, she probably knows when it is and isn’t appropriate to give her kid a treat in their lunch. JFC.
As Reist explains to Parents, the school’s official policy is that “processed cake” can’t be sent into class. However, in this case, it wasn’t “processed,” but rather leftover homemade birthday cake that the child brought. So besides the fact that—at least in my opinion—a “no cake” rule is stupid either way, this mother wasn’t even actually breaking any rule.
The thing to remember is that when you send a kid home with a disciplinary note over something like eating, you are food shaming them, no two ways about it. What we do or do not eat is very personal and really no one’s freaking business. Furthermore, shaming a child in this way—especially such a small kid—isn’t without ramifications.
Kids remember these sorts of humiliating situations. Think back on your days as a school kid. It is probably the littlest embarrassing or scary situations that you remember most—and that left a lasting impression on you.
As Reist tells Parents, “I understand that harried teachers are most likely trying to carry out school policy while not being trained dietitians. But my biggest concern is where shaming around food takes us. When children see food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ it can set them up for eating disorders.”
YES. Exactly this.
And besides the serious and real issue of eating disorders, what about food insecurity or shaming someone based on what social class they belong to? Maybe a child brought a less-than-wholesome lunch into school because that was all that was in their kitchen cabinets. Maybe a child has sensory processing disorder or a diagnosed food aversion or disorder. Maybe the child is on the autism spectrum.
Or maybe the child just wanted a piece of flipping chocolate cake that day, because why the hell not?
The point is keep your mouth shut. Additionally, schools should consider re-evaluating their “food rules.” They are not doctors or dietitians, and it’s really not their place to say what kind of food enters their students’ bodies.
Reist actually had some stellar advice for her friend whose kid was scolded over the chocolate cake: “I told her to put in two slices tomorrow and tell them to get lost.”
I think that’s exactly the right advice. Your reasons for how you pack your child’s lunch are valid, personal, and absolutely no one’s business but your own. Period.