Let’s end the school lunch moralising

Food policing and lunchbox shaming has got to stop. Well intentioned as it may be, it’s not working – and it’s hurting our most vulnerable families, writes Dr Rebekah Graham.

School lunchboxes are a site of moral judgement for parents. Meeting societal expectations with regards to providing socially acceptable items can cause feelings of embarrassment and stress for mothers. Heavily influenced by classed notions of good parenting, school lunchbox items particularly expose low-income mothers to public scrutiny and condemnation.

Presbyterian Support Otago, in their 2011 report Voices of Poverty, documented mothers going without food in order to provide lunchbox items deemed appropriate for children. Kellie McNeill’s research participants described prioritising their children’s food needs, and how they used coping mechanisms such as cups of tea and taking sleeping tablets to stave off hunger pains. In Speaking for Ourselves, Garden and colleagues write “Parents frequently report they choose to go without food so that their children can eat, and that they go to great lengths to make the lack of food in the house seem less obvious.”

Similarly, the participants in my PhD research prioritised their children’s needs, often going without sufficient food themselves in order to ensure their children had enough to eat and could take suitable items for their lunchboxes.

Sending a child to school with a piece of fruit in their lunchbox is predominantly viewed as ‘good parenting’. Healthy eating campaigns also reinforce the idea of fruit as a ‘good’ option for children. Interestingly, recent New Zealand-based research with children indicates that they are often uninterested in eating fruit, finding it a potentially risky food that can be unpleasant in feel and taste.

A primary school’s lunch check list (supplied)

Ginny, a participant in my PhD research, comments that “apples are pretty staple [but] whatever the fruit that’s most cheapest, I’ll try and give them at least a couple of bits a day…I put their food into ice-cream containers.” Once the fruit is carefully divided out, her children will barter pieces of fruit for chores or according to individual tastes.

In making ends meet, Ginny is also able to source donations of leftover bread, which are used to make sandwiches using inexpensive fillings such as luncheon sausage or peanut butter. Other items commonly promoted in healthy eating campaigns as suitable for school lunches are simply too expensive.

As Ginny notes, “I only buy yoghurts for birthdays…We never eat biscuits, unless we get given some.” Ginny’s children are aware of the social distance with their peers in terms of foods eaten – and foods wasted. While their lunches conform to socially acceptable healthy norms, the reality is that constrained incomes makes food dull and tedious.

Ginny’s daughter Jackie supplements her lunch by eating her friend’s unwanted leftovers. Her sibling Stacey is highly sensitive to food waste by schoolmates, and was horrified to see “a whole apple in the bin, without even a bite out of it!”

The capacity to carelessly discard food highlights the social difference between their family that carefully ekes out and barters fruit, and wealthier families who can afford to throw out perfectly good apples.

Items in Jenny’s school lunch

Julye, another participant in my research, has a daughter, Jenny, with sensory issues, which means she is particularly sensitive to the texture of foods and refuses to eat certain items. Julye does her best to provide Jenny with appropriate lunchbox items, even when doing so means she goes without food later in the week. Describing her own photographs of packed school lunches, Julye says:

“Number one is Jenny’s lunchbox. That’s kind of how her lunchbox goes… At the moment she won’t eat anything apparently mushy…She had a big meltdown at school and was saying [item] were too mushy.

“Number two is Josh’s lunch box and that’s the kind of stuff I’ll put in there…I find the fruit thing is easier with Josh because he does like a lot more kinds of food than what Jenny does. So that kind of gets there when you’re having to buy this one for Jenny and that one for Josh.

“The peanuts were cheap. That was the first ever time I’ve tried peanuts. I got them peanuts cos I thought they’re meant to be healthy aren’t they? But usually yeah, they’ll have rice crackers and a Le Snak and chips and an orange and an apple. I always try and put the fruit in there so it looks fuller…if I bought two packs of dollar Twisties and that kind of thing then I separate those packs and put them into bags…with the popcorn. I get the microwave popcorn and then it can last two days…So that’s spread out between them and then for after-school snacks as well. And corn chips.”

Items for Josh’s school lunch

When finances are tight, purchasing inexpensive treats such as Twisties and peanuts can brighten up a sparse lunchbox. These items are often condemned by food reformers as poor choices. We see hints of this in the list of suitable and banned lunch items from Caitlyn’s kindergarten (above and below). Julye comments on the difficulties of following school nutritional regulations:

“It’s hard to get that food…It feels like I had to go out and buy a whole different kind of foods for Josh so then it suits his little kindy regulations…I’m not a baker, I don’t have time to bake…after dinner’s over, I’m just tired and I’m like, dead!”

Lunchbox nutritional guidelines are well-intentioned, and can be useful guidelines for parents regarding low-sugar suggestions and minimally processed items for children. Many parents appreciate new ideas for lunchboxes, including ways to entice reluctant eaters. Other parents appreciate help with navigating the constant onslaught of advertising messages from food companies.

However, where these guidelines are used as tools to shame and embarrass parents for their food choices they are less helpful. Shaming children for lunchbox items places additional pressure on low-income, time-poor parents such as Julye.

Overly prescriptive lunchbox guidelines can also curtail creative food endeavours. Carla Rey Vasquez, in her study of children’s lunch foods in a Wellington primary school, was surprised at the homogenisation of lunchbox items, something that was particularly striking given the otherwise rich diversity the school exhibited. She suggested this was most likely the result of “parents being sent strict guidelines regarding the sort of food they should pack for their children’s lunches…which dictate: Make nutritious packed lunches using rolls or sandwiches with a filling of cheese and lean meat or egg.” Vasquez also noted that those children who arrived at school without a lunch were fed white-bread jam sandwiches by the librarian, an easily rustled up meal that ensured children had something to eat at midday.

Lunchbox lists of suitable and banned items tend to reflect class ideals more than nutritional values. That a piece of homemade cake is on the suitable list but cheap potato crisps are not is one example of classed notions that prioritise handmade food over store-bought items. Such attitudes reflect assumptions by healthy eating campaigners that parents have the time, knowledge, and inclination to engage in home-baking practices.

In reality, home-baked goods can be just as, if not more expensive for families – and not necessarily any healthier. Nevertheless, as Bev Skeggs notes in her work on class, moralising around healthy eating not only reflects specific middle-class ideals of ‘good food’, but are endlessly pervasive.

A primary school’s lunch check list (supplied)

As Vicki Harman and Bernadetta Capellini, in their 2015 study on packed lunches, write: “The school seems to be regarded as one of the most powerful potential audiences to whom mothers felt morally accountable”.

This places great pressure on mothers in particular to provide items deemed appropriate for consumption at school. In order to avoid the stigma and moral judgements associated with ‘poor choices’, parents such as Ginny and Julye go to great lengths to ensure their children have lunchbox items that display and convey parental care. Society’s ideals of what is and isn’t an appropriate packed lunch legitimise middle-class norms, while shaming non-conforming families.

As communities, we need to better support parents and families to communicate their experiences, encourage a diversity of food choices, and avoid the temptation to aggressively police children’s lunchbox items.

Dr Rebekah Graham recently completed her PhD at Massey University (Albany). Her research with families documents the lived experiences of food insecurity within the context of poverty. She lives in Hamilton with her husband, four children, and a very large orange cat.

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