bad nutrition? poverty? (Chicago Opinion)

Did ya see the sensational Yahoo news story about Little Village Academy banning home lunches yesterday?  Well the school has had the ban in place for quite a while.  There is actually a better write up about the school and this program via the Chicago Tribune.  My immediate visceral reaction to this story was that it was “ridiculous” to only let kids eat school food. For me I know what I will provide for my child will be better than what a school will provide, but not all parents will do better than what a standardized school lunch will do.

Why is that?  I can think of a few reasons why children will bring a junk food-laden lunch:

  1. The child is picky and just will not eat certain foods (this is extreme but does happen – and can be even the most proactive parent’s nightmare – no judgment, it happens).
  2. The child is not guided to good nutritional habits by caretakers.  It can be from ignorance on what is good nutrition, laziness, or distracted parents that have other priorities.  This is not cool, but sometimes caretakers have the means to provide solid nutrition but do not execute this life skill.  I think this is a BIG PRIORITY we as communities should be addressing to make one another better.
  3. Lack of access to better quality food.  Let me just say I grew up in South Central Los Angeles when I was little.  If it was not for my dad working in Hollywood and grocery shopping there we would have only had access to green meats, few if any veggies, and really sub-par food.  If you have not heard of food justice or environmental justice for inner city and or poverty conditions because thankfully you are so far removed from the topic then I can’t be mad at ya, but here is a small primer of a typical situation.
  4. Poverty. If you cannot afford to eat, then you cannot afford to eat.  Hopefully you will find some sort of assistance but especially with our economic down turn food banks are running dry.  Sadly our littlest citizens bear the brunt of this scenario far more often than many realize.  In a country of obesity and calories everywhere (even though they can be low quality calories) children go hungry in almost every community.

I started thinking about Little Village Academy and why the principal took her stance to ban lunches all together vs. pulling less nutritious items from lunches brought from home like some other schools do.  Without having ever been to to the 60623 zip code I wanted more of a glance of this neighborhood.

In 2009 34.3% of the residents of this zip code were living below the poverty line compared to 13.3% for the rest of the state.  The average adjusted gross income for this zip code was $23,087 in 2005 compared to $54,625 for the rest of the state.  More people live in units compared to the rest of the state (3.8 vs. 2.6) with the median resident age being 10 years younger than the rest of the state.  The housing market is also not doing too well (all info from zip code profile on www.city-data.com)

and the area is primarily a minority community (this matters with how institutionalized food justice matters prevail)

I went on to see what the food access was like in the area with a market search

It honestly does not look so bad until you check out google street view and see that many are mini-mercados and places with tiny operations with many tabacco and alcohol advertisements (a hallmark of food justice issues). The largest markets are a La Chiquita (A) chain and an independent butcher (F) that primarily sells meat and liquor (based on their store front markings and a web review I found).  The La Chiquita has a taqueria in the back with pretty good yelp reviews and appears to be the main source for fresh food in the area.  Their buyer picks up produce from the South Water Market at least two times a week.  In this week’s ad there was whole tilapia for $1.40/lb, oranges $1.89/4-lb bag, potatoes $1.29/5-lb bag.  Now I am not saying the food here is the freshest or best quality (many of these chains can offer food at incredible savings by not offering the highest quality) but the produce is there and accessible rather central to the community.

So why would the principal ban homemade lunches in the interest of her students health? Given the snapshot of this neighborhood why were children bringing in bad nutrition? Those are answers I don’t have.  However if it was out of poverty I do not know if a $2.25/day lunch program is a quick fix for families living below the poverty line – especially when a number of kids are throwing the food away and not eating it.  If it is lack of caretaker education then putting this meal in the hands of the school may not be the best answer.  If it is lack of caretaker education then an overtaxed, underfunded school system may not have the best means to educate yet another segment of the community population.  There can be some access issues depending on the quality of food in mini-mercados radiating away from La Chiquita – but I am not in this neighborhood to say definitively if that is true.

Whatever the reason my visceral reaction is still to be upset about a cafeteria-lunch only school (minus medical conditions that can bring home lunches).  However it is easy to be upset with how easy my life is now compared to the similar living conditions to the 60623 that I experienced when I grew up in South Central.  I would love to see a grassroots community food and environmental justice group work in this area to broaden access to fresh produce, bring access to higher quality foods, and educate regarding better nutrition for all community members.  This is a pipe dream that many communities can benefit from.

5 Comment

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I need to get more involved in New Haven’s move to get fresh, organic veggies into the schools. I love these movements and REALLY appreciate your in-depth, research-based response to this.

  2. Great post Kia! I think what concerned me the most is many of the poorest students will qualify for free school lunches (or at least they do in our area). The $2.25 a lunch hits families like mine smack dab in the middle class the hardest. I know we often eat for less than that, but have a variety of fresh & local fruits & veggies.

    I like your idea about educating the parents and community. I think that is a better route than policing our schools.

  3. As a former teacher and a mother AND someone who grew up on the free lunch program, I feel very strongly about this. If, by the time my daughter is old enough to go to school, the lunch program hasn’t improved, I will be sending her with a homemade lunch. But, of course, I now have all the advantages to do that effectively. Those being financial means, access to quality food and an understanding of nutrition and food. As a teacher, I often had to educate parents about nutrition and its effects on the brain and their children’s learning. The lunch of cheetos, sugary yogurt, cookies, and a sandwich of processed meats really wasn’t fueling their children for an afternoon of learning. Sadly, the school lunches didn’t offer much of a better option. I think there have been some strides made to increase access to quality food for those who live in poverty, such as the ability to use food stamps at farmers markets. Now, there needs to be some serious education about it. Parents often don’t know about the resources that are available to them. Hopefully, this school can step up and offer their parents some education in this area.

  4. Wow! I can’t get my kids to eat the $1.90 meals at their school and they get choices. I can’t imagine giving up cold lunch, but there are low income hot lunch programs in quite a few of the states we live in. My guess is many of these parents may not be physically able or have the time to shop for healthy choices for their kids as many of the kids I went to school with experienced.
    I agree with you on parent and community education, but those school hot lunches need to take a step up, I can’t even bring myself to eat on my kids favorite hot lunch day.

  5. Thanks so much for doing some research on this topic. My initial reaction was to be livid, but I held back, because this was so out there, I felt like I must be missing something. I’m going back to being livid now–especially the more that I think about it. If the school is going to take this sort of stance, they need to back it up with good tasting and nutritious food (which they should do anyway). Teaching kids that nutritious food is gross is not a good lesson. I understand that school budgets are tough, but there are great ways to make healthy and delicious food on the cheap.

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