Banning packed lunches is just another power grab from government

Thrusting a dagger into the heart of advocates for freedom of choice, the government’s latest wheeze may be to ban the humble packed lunch. School children will be no longer allowed anywhere near white bread, processed meat and carbonate drinks between the hours of 8am and 4pm during term time. The plan to limit childrens’ exposure to supposed ‘unhealthy’ lunches could also extend to barring them from leaving school during break times, presumably on the belief that they will all head straight to the nearest fast-food restaurant. The proposal comes from a Government-commissioned review conducted by the owners of Leon, the high street food chain, which also found that only 1% of packed lunches met the same nutritional standards as school meals. It will no doubt be sold as an initiative to increase the take up of school meals and to promote healthy eating among children. But as Jamie Oliver showed a few years ago, a school meal does not necessarily equate to a healthy one.

Yet the practicalities of implementing a ban on packed lunches will be problematic. The most basic of which is the question of who will monitor this ban? I cannot see teachers lining children up first thing every morning to inspect their bags for chocolate bars. Then there are children with strict dietary requirements like celiacs or those that can only eat kosher or halal food. Every school would be required to accommodate these needs and ensure that school food met the standards expected by the parents of the children that needed them. And would parents be subjected to injunctions, stopping them from aping the parents of children at Rawmarsh Comprehensive in 2006 who passed food through the school gates? If I were the Minister in charge of implementing this ban I would certainly be anxiously waiting for the occasion a parent tries to bring legal action against a school for breaching their child’s human rights.

Leaving aside the issue of practicality, this new plan should it ever come to fruition is just another example of Government interfering in people’s lives and telling them what to do. Conservative governments have traditionally been all about ‘small g’ government, and with minimal interference, because people are supposed to be trusted to act responsibly. But at the risk of looking like they have run out of ideas and policies, this government as well as ones that came before cannot resist meddling unnecessarily in people’s lives. Now it seems to be the case that there aren’t many activities in which we can engage unless the government declares their practice to be legal or not banned.

The government’s justification will be that by preventing children from undertaking ‘harmful’ behaviour, and they are looking after the common good. Healthier children now, means a healthier adult population in the future, which will put less of a strain on the NHS and other social services. Yet by this logic smoking should be made illegal, but isn’t because cigarettes and tobacco raise billions of pounds for the government’s coffers. Certainly government has a key role in advising its citizens on good nutrition and diet, and the motive behind the idea is the right one: that of promoting healthy eating and nutrition. But advice and guidance, through public awareness campaigns and the introduction of the traffic light system for food packaging should be the limit of their involvement. What is the point of introducing the traffic light system only to then turn around and declare that certain foods cannot be eaten by certain people at certain times of the day? The government is, in effect saying that it does not trust parents. Parents too must shoulder some responsibility for their child’s eating habits during the school day, whether it is teaching them about healthy eating or if packed lunches remain legal providing them with a healthy lunch. Certainly food has become more expensive, and the lower paid are hit hardest by rises in food prices. But buying healthy food instead of sugary snacks does not have to be expensive. In my local Tesco’s a banana is less than 20p whereas a chocolate bar costs about 60p.

The real issue is that the government should be providing school children with healthier and more nutritious food than it is currently doing, and any ban on packed lunches must be complemented with a rise in the standard of school meals. It is patently obvious that preventing children from bringing in food is a waste of time unless the only alternative is a healthier option. The government should also be widening the availability of free school meals to the 1.2 million children living in poverty that don’t receive them. If the ban is a measure to counter childhood obesity, which according to the latest figures by the Department for Health show that 30% of children aged between 2 and 15 are obese, then it should be tackled it through a multi-pronged approach which would include putting more resources into sports and recreational facilities to complement healthy eating. But the Government‘s policy schizophrenia is again evident here. Its aspiration for schools is to provide two hours of physical activity per week, but ‘grassroots’ sport funding will get a 5% cut in 2015/16, while elite sport funding will be maintained and in some cases increased.

The nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill one said that “the only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over a member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant”. Successive governments have stepped further away from this principle to such an extent that it has twisted its interfering tentacles itself into every single aspect of one’s life. Where does it stop?