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OPINIONKaiMay 4, 2021

Lunchbox shaming is out of control

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

If your kid is neurodivergent or has high health needs, being told their lunchbox doesn’t contain the right food can cause real harm. It needs to stop, says Emily Writes. 

This post was first published on Emily Writes Weekly.

I want to say first and foremost that I am OK. Yes, I’m starting a conversation about lunchboxes online, but I promise you: I don’t have a death wish.

Lunchbox talk is the new breastfeeding vs formula feeding. It’s co-sleeping vs sleep training. It’s more controversial than “would it be weird if I put my kid on a lead?” It makes people lose their minds more than “should children be allowed to exist while I’m eating food in a cafe?” or any discussion on early childhood education.

And because nobody wants to talk about it, because it’s such an exhausting topic to discuss, the whole lunchbox shaming issue is getting worse for kids and parents.

That might sound like hyperbole, but I promise it’s true. I am getting emails every week from parents with awful stories about lunchbox shaming. Children coming home crying, hungry – because another child told them their lunch wasn’t good enough. Opinions they heard from their parents and regurgitated at recess.

Many adults are so sheltered from the reality of what life is like in New Zealand that they don’t seem to realise that in New Zealand many, many children are going to school without lunch.

New research, commissioned by charity KidsCan, found more than three-quarters of schools in New Zealand have children who don’t go to school because they don’t have enough food.  The same research found 99% of decile 1-6 primary and secondary schools having students who go hungry on a regular basis.

Yet, many parents are so absolutely obsessed with food in lunchboxes being organic, no sugar, no salt, hand-raised, grass-fed fucking bullshit that kids are being shamed for coming to school with only a $1 bread sandwich.

My sons have came home from school with ridiculous ideas about food that I’ve had to dismantle. Terms like “good food” and “bad food” and “real food”. This is a nightmare to deal with for those of us who have children with disabilities.

What is it like for children who already don’t have enough and are now told that the small amount they do have isn’t the right food?

We are lucky enough to be able to afford lunch for our kids every day but that doesn’t mean they (and we) escape lunchbox shaming.

When your child is neurodivergent, things can be taken really literally. So a child telling another child that “Mummy says that chips are bad” turns into “I can’t eat chips because they’re poison”. When a child’s sensory issues mean they can eat exactly three things, and now there are only two because someone decided to police how kids eat food outside of their homes, this is a nightmare.

Likewise, a recent fundraiser my son did resulted in grown adults complaining that he was selling lolly packs for Diabetes Youth Wellington. Despite the fact that these packs keep him alive, and this was his chance to share parts of his illness with other children.

One adult at school suggested I use fruit instead. The reason why juice and lollies are used to treat blood glucose lows is because they work faster than a piece of fruit and they’re easy to measure. Maybe my son’s endochronologist knows more than Mackenzie’s mum who has no health qualifications? Who knows?

One mother emailed me last week to say her child was now terrified to eat anything in a wrapper. “I can’t afford to only buy in bulk. I’m a single mum with a full-time job – I don’t have time to make everything from scratch. His lunch is perfectly healthy and we recycle. I’m doing my best.”

Another mum said by Instagram message: “When I’m run ragged and waiting for the next pay I get it. I’ve had a mother say to my daughter, ‘I thought your family cared about the environment’. It crushed her and it made me feel so shit. I’m so tired.”

Another mum shared: “My autistic kid was lunchbox shamed by another kid when he was five for having a marshmallow in his lunchbox. He was petrified of us putting anything that had sugar in his lunchbox (including plain biscuits) for about six months and wouldn’t get past it until we took him in for a meeting with the school to reassure him it was OK.”

I’m not sure how we get to a place where Little Johnny doesn’t feel like he’s single-handedly destroying the environment because he brought something prepackaged to school. Or how we can handle getting Quinoa’s mum to shut the fuck up about health issues she has no understanding of. Or how we can educate privileged parents to understand that if you think an apple isn’t enough for lunch (and it isn’t), you can make extra things to take to school for kids who don’t have enough.

Lunchbox shaming is more than lunchbox shaming – it’s shaming kids and parents who are poor, it’s shaming kids with disabilities, kids who are neurodivergent and kids with high health needs. It needs to stop.

How you feed your kids is your business. How other people feed their kids is theirs. The only time we should care about what’s in a lunchbox is when there’s not enough in it – and that’s where we can do our best to ensure no child goes hungry.

That involves lobbying the government and reminding Jacinda Ardern that she said in 2017 that we must hold her accountable for poverty in this country.

In the meantime, if you’ve got time to bitch about another child’s lunchbox, you’ve got time to make extra sandwiches for children in need. It’s a better use of your time – I promise.

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