I encountered this news article, “Chicago school bans some lunches brought from home”:

At Little Village, most students must take the meals served in the cafeteria or go hungry or both. . . . students are not allowed to pack lunches from home. Unless they have a medical excuse, they must eat the food served in the cafeteria. . . . Such discussions over school lunches and healthy eating echo a larger national debate about the role government should play in individual food choices. “This is such a fundamental infringement on parental responsibility,” said J. Justin Wilson, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Center for Consumer Freedom, which is partially funded by the food industry. . . . For many CPS parents, the idea of forbidding home-packed lunches would be unthinkable. . . .

I posted this at the sister blog and remarked that, if I had read this two years ago, I’d be at one with J. Justin Wilson and the outraged kids and parents. But last year we spent a sabbatical in Paris, where . . . kids aren’t allowed to bring lunches to school. The kids who don’t go home for lunch have to eat what’s supplied by the lunch ladies in the cafeteria. And it’s just fine. Actually, it was more than fine because we didn’t have to prepare the kids’ lunches every day. So, no, I don’t think the no-lunch-from-home rule is a “fundamental infringement” etc. Then again, I’m not partially funded by the food industry . . .

Various blog commenters write that the cafeteria food is generally much better in France than in United States. And Igor Carron, a French statistician who lived in Texas for many years (as an adult) wrote in with an interesting political angle:

If I were to compare France and say Texas, I’d say that this is more an issue of how the school systems are clearly delineating the stakeholders.

In France, the meal is paid for through the mayor’s office. The school itself is owned by the city but the educators are getting their paycheck from the state. There are simply different stakeholders with pretty well defined responsibilities. If the kids don’t eat right, the mayor gets to hear about it very fast and she/he wants to make sure that she/he is not seen as “starving the children”.

In Texas, the whole school (educators, canteen,…) are all dependent on one administration (the school district). If the food is not good, then someone on the school board may hear about it and then drown the problem and point the fingers to the “inefficient” school’s administration. But there are so many issues at the school level that I don’t think you can lose an election on the school board based on that one particular item.

Not many people will also articulate this but I would not be surprised if the French considered sharing the same meal a way of mixing different people from different backgrounds (rich,poor,…). If you pack lunch for your kids, you are also probably allowing your kid to send some signals that are not conducive to a smooth learning experience.

Interesting idea regarding clear administrative and political responsibilities. I don’t know anything about this area of political science but thought I would post it here. My original reason for posting on this (besides my own personal interests) came from the public opinion angle, that an issue could seem so fundamental to some people and so minor to others. (Here are some other examples.)

[Cross-posted at the Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.