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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Chicago School Bans Bag Lunches

Chicago School Bans Bag Lunches to Get Kids to Eat Less Junk Food

By Mara Gay

A push for healthier school lunches has led one Chicago school to ban students from bringing lunches from home altogether.

Students at Chicago's Little Village Academy are required to eat the lunch provided to them by the school -- a policy that has cooked up controversy among parents and educators amid a national debate about the best way to promote healthy eating for children.

"Some of the kids don't like the food they give at our school for lunch or breakfast," Erica Martinez, a parent at the school, told the Chicago Tribune, which first reported the story. "So it would be a good idea if they could bring their lunch so they could at least eat something."

Little Village Academy principal Elsa Carmona said she banned bagged lunches six years ago because students were bringing junk food to school. She said the meals at school, which are provided by food contractor Chartwells-Thompson, are usually healthier.

"Nutrition-wise, it is better for the children to eat at the school," she told the Tribune. "It's about the nutrition and the excellent-quality food that they are able to serve [in the lunchroom]. It's milk versus a Coke. But with allergies and any medical issue, of course, we would make an exception."

Carmona did not immediately respond to a request for comment today from AOL News.

But Susan Rubin, a nutritionist and founder of the Better School Food program, said lunches offered by large food providers like Chartwells Thompson are not necessarily more nutritious.

She didn't mince words about cafeteria food in most schools.

"It's rare that I see a school, especially a public school, that actually serves food that's good," she told AOL News in a phone interview today. "I get physically sick just looking at it, because it makes me sick that kids are eating this processed crap."

Chartwells-Thompson did not immediately return a request for comment today.

The campaign to make school lunches healthier has become a hot topic in recent years and is one of first lady Michelle Obama's signature issues. In December, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law, tying increased funding for school lunches to stricter health guidelines for the meals.

But some healthy-food advocates say taking decision-making power away from parents is not the best way to implement change.

Amie Hamlin, the executive director of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, said she supported the spirit of Little Village Academy's lunch policy, but said banning homemade lunches completely was overreaching.

"I see the junk that kids bring in," Hamlin told AOL News by phone today. "But some parents want their kids to eat only organic or vegan meals, and those parents should not be undermined. Sometimes meals from home are much healthier."

Hamlin said a policy that banned junk food may make more sense.

According to the Tribune, some students at Little Village Academy are in a state of near revolt over the policy. As much revolt as a group of elementary students can muster, anyway.

"We should bring our own lunch! We should bring our own lunch! We should bring our own lunch!" students reportedly chanted when a reporter from the paper visited the cafeteria one day.

The students vowed to bring wholesome food to school in the event of a policy change. Mostly.

"Sometimes I would bring the healthy stuff," Julian Ruiz, a second-grader, told the Tribune, "but sometimes I would bring Lunchables."

Justin Wilson, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, said parents should be able to make choices about what their kids eat. "They're saying, 'Parents don't know what's best for their children, the government does.' "

He also said forcing students to eat food that may not taste good to them won't encourage them to eat nutritiously in the future.

"No one likes to eat food that doesn't taste good. This is a recipe for teaching children to hate healthy food," Wilson said.

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