The attack of the Lunchbox Police.






On the day that my eldest daughter started school, I sent her off with a lunchbox of freshly prepared, beautifully presented items. Amongst them was a home baked chocolate muffin dusted with icing sugar, which she had helped make the day before.

When she came home that evening, the rest of her lunch was gone, but the muffin was still in her lunchbox, untouched. I asked her why.

‘It was too sweet’, she explained. ‘The teacher said we couldn’t have sweet things’.
Outraged, I did what any self-respecting parent would do in the twenty-first century. I took my anecdote to Facebook, and Facebook did not disappoint. Friends from all over the world responded immediately with their own indignation.

Naoko*, in Japan, is expected to send a clean, freshly ironed cloth placemat with her children’s lunch every day. ‘A new one each day, and woe betide the mother who sends the same one two days running’.

Goldele*, in New York, has received notes ‘telling us not to send sweets to school. I ignore them’.

Samantha*’s school complained about no-added-sugar apple sauce: Rebecca*’s school sent back a note forbidding Graham crackers. Mathilde*, in France, sends her boys to a school which only allows pre-packaged food, whereas Joanna*’s son, in Australia, is required to bring only unwrapped food in accordance with his school’s ‘nude food policy’: a concept which is gaining traction amongst Australian schools, much to the glee of speciality lunchbox manufacturers.

Katherine* relates, with indignation, the message relayed by her children from their teacher to ‘tell Mummy to give you sandwiches next time’ when she sent in imaginative lunchboxes full of healthy nibbles.

The lunchbox police are out there. Trust us…

In Britain, teachers – and sometimes, other children – have the right to inspect lunchbox contents to ensure that they comply. Australian schools are increasingly following suit.

We can’t win. Alison* summed it up for the rest of us when she said ‘I hate the lunchbox police. It’s just kicking a mum when she’s down’.

These policies are classic examples of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The issue goes beyond allergens. Nobody I know begrudges the ubiquitous nut-free policies in our schools, which are there to safeguard other children. And every teacher has experienced the child who comes to school with a lunchbox full of lollies, crisps and a jam sandwich; that child is the one who will be nodding off halfway through the afternoon from a sugar crash.

The logic, therefore, goes like this: Rather than target these children, further contributing to their problems, schools implement an overall policy.

But is it worth the parental angst, the embarrassment of a child called out for its lunchbox contents, the desperate attempts to find something that a fussy child will eat and a school will accept?

These initiatives do little or nothing to affect a child’s diet overall, whilst asking more and more from busy parents.

So what is the real agenda?

Schools do more than teach our children how to read and write; they teach our children how to be good citizens. This is one of the reasons why some people choose to home-school; to keep control over their children’s values and sense of social norms. Nude food, cloth placemats and bans on some sorts of sugary food (chocolate, for example) but not others (sultanas are usually allowed) are all ways that we teach our children about acceptable eating habits. Not just calorie intake, but how and why and when people eat.

Mamamia Publisher know’s what it’s like to be snack shamed.

This is why the topic of school lunch rules strikes such a deep chord in mothers. Mothers have historically borne the brunt of feeding their families; how well they do so is a rich fount of guilt. It starts when they give birth and the breastfeeding question rears its controversial head, continues through the days of organic purees vs processed baby foods, and never stops.

Motherhood is bound up in feeding in a way that fatherhood is not. It is not who brings home the bacon but who cooks it that is at issue, and only if it’s organic, free-range lean bacon at that.

When our children’s lunch boxes come home with a note attached, no matter how neutral the terms in which they are couched, we are being told that we are not bringing them up correctly.

That our values don’t accord with the ideals of our society. When you’re already worrying about your children’s happiness, and trying to juggle the demands of school with that of your younger children, your career and your household, notes like this can slam into your solar plexus more accurately than a toddler playing dodgem cars. That’s why there is so much anger, and anxiety, around the contents of a plastic box. We want our schools to teach our children not to shame their mothers.

*The names have been changed for privacy.

Tanya Ashworth is a freelance writer, lawyer and mother. She spends too much on books, but everybody needs a vice.  She blogs at