How a tuna sandwich resulted in solitary confinement for a child in Milan

tuna panino
CC BY 2.0 Charlene McBride

Some parents in Milan just want to be able to pack their kids a lunch, but the schools don't like it.

When a child was sent to school in Milan with a tuna panino in his bag for lunch, the principal banished him from the cafeteria and sent him to eat alone in the classroom. By sending a packed lunch, the boy’s parents defied local rules that forbid any child from eating food other than that which is prepared by the school daily.

Who knew that a tuna panino was anti-establishment? School lunches have recently become a rallying cry for many northern Italian parents, who are fed up with a system that force-feeds their children meals of which they may not approve. Ever since the rules changed in Turin, “where a judge recently ruled in favour of dozens of families who had complained about the quality and quantity of food provided at their children’s school and were told they could provide alternatives from home,” others have been wondering if they can make similar changes, too.

The opinions on Italian school lunches vary, depending on whom you ask. The Guardian describes a standard that sounds fairly decent: “About 40% of food served was organic and on biodegradable materials and rice was locally sourced. The city wants all olive oil and pasta to be organic by next year.” But, as one reader commented, “Organic does not magically equal good food.” Indeed, many cite the poor taste of food as being a reason for wanting change. (This differs from the general opinion of French school meals being excellent and of very high quality.)

Why would schools not allow parents to send their own food for children? It seems odd to those of us living in North America, where parents are usually responsible for their kids’ meals. It appears the school authorities are fearful of something awful happening. A spokeswoman for the office Anna Scavuzzo, head of school food policy in Milan, told The Guardian that homemade lunches are a threat to student safety:

“If you permit everyone to bring their own food, how can you be sure that something won’t happen?” The spokeswoman for Scavuzzo’s office [pointed] to the prevalence of food allergies, infections, intolerances and other problems. “Lunch is an educational moment. They need to learn to sit together, to have proper, safe and organic food, and that they can’t just have potato chips and chocolate. They are in school and that means community.”

Well, for starters, they could look to North American schools to see how not sharing one’s food is taught to young children from day one, as is allergy awareness, the forbidding of certain foods in schools, and personal hygiene. If students somehow survive their homemade lunches in Canada and the U.S., then why not in Italy?

I suspect that ‘student safety’ is a bit of an excuse for not wanting to break with tradition. Italian culture, for all its wonderful qualities, can be very conformist, and the notion of changing a practice that’s been in place for many years could be uncomfortable for many people.

If Scavuzzo and her colleagues are truly worried that quality may be lacking in some students’ lunches, they could offer optional meals, a meal plan, or supplemental foods. At my kids’ school here in Canada, we have a ‘breakfast club’ for anyone in the school who wishes to eat in the morning before the bell rings; leftovers, usually granola bars, muffins and fruit, are distributed in the classroom during lunch hour.

There are additional food programs, such as pizza and pita days and daily milk distribution, all of which cost extra and are optional. They’re a great idea, but tend to be pricey – another one of the reasons that Italian parents cite for wanting a change in rules. Currently the daily cost for lunch in Milanese schools is €2.60 (US $2.90) per child, which adds up to a lot per week when you’ve got multiple kids.

It will be interesting to see where this battle ends. The school officials are downplaying the clash, but the rather disturbing way in which Scavuzzo’s spokeswoman belittles parents’ rights will doubtlessly anger many more:

“We are only talking about five, six, seven people who are raising an issue with this. They are claiming the right to do what they want and it is unacceptable. If you are in school, there are rules; otherwise everything collapses. Then they will start to claim the rights over what they’re studying.”

Yikes! Imagine having a say in one's education? Now we're really talking about danger.

How a tuna sandwich resulted in solitary confinement for a child in Milan
Some parents in Milan just want to be able to pack their kids a lunch, but the schools don't like it.

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