Earlier this week, a film crew turned up at our house to interview me about my experiences of my own children being ‘lunchbox shamed’ at their preschool, after a friend received a note home chastising her for putting
razor blades a piece of hedgehog slice in her 3-year-old’s packed lunch.
Being Today Tonight, they had a story to tell (Outrage! Nanny state! Political correctness gone mad!) and so of course they edited out all the clever things I was very proud of myself for managing to squeeze out of my sleep deprived brain while holding a squirmy baby on my lap. They didn’t want to hear about how I was concerned that categorising foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ was dangerous in a world where children as young as 5 are being admitted to hospital for eating disorders. They weren’t really interested in the issues of classism, racism and privilege raised by strict lunchbox guidelines and their blanket enforcement. But I’m not limited to soundbites here, so I wanted to nut through a few things that #hedgehoggate has made me think about.
1. ‘Mummy shaming’
I wrote once that I don’t believe that mummy shaming is a thing. I still don’t, because sending a passive aggressive note home is a lot more complex than that. Sure, the note in question was shared by a woman. But the media reducing the heavy-handed enforcement of nutrition guidelines to ‘mummy shaming’ is pretty darn tootin sexist, no? Not to mention the way that referring to a note like this as ‘shaming’ shoots us straight to emotional Defcon 4, limiting our capacity to reasonably discuss whether or not this kind of thing is appropriate. Because if shame actually is being attempted as a tactic to encourage healthy eating, whether directed at parents or children, isn’t that bullying?
At the very least, it’s a serious communication failure. ‘Poor’ lunch choices should be an opportunity to engage with families and learn about the child’s context in which those choices are being made. Are parents struggling to make ends meet? Is there domestic violence or a housing crisis? Sensory issues regarding food? A family birthday with leftover cake? What a missed opportunity for connection and community. The health and wellbeing of children depends on so much more than veggie sticks or chocolate biscuits – and families deserve the chance to be met where they are at.
2. The infantilisation of mothers never ends
While the lunchbox discussion certainly shouldn’t be limited to mothers, the reality is that mothers in Australia do make the majority of caring and food decisions regarding children, and our cultural attitudes shape that reality. Now I’m all for reasonable public health measures – it’s hard to begrudge a bit of Nanny State-ism here and there when Nanny foots the healthcare bills – but what we’re talking about here is the policing of mother’s bodies and feeding choices which begins before we even become pregnant.
Sure, we might get handed a bunch of pamphlets explaining different options, risks and benefits etc, but it’s rare for a woman to be universally able to achieve her pick of those options and rarer still for her to be truly entrusted to decide what is going to be good in her life and circumstances. More often, we are micromanaged, second-guessed, and any effort less than perfection is evidence of incompetence, laziness, or negligence. How are we meant to find our happy medium of ‘Good Enough’ against the blunt instruments of ‘Breast is Best‘, ‘Fed is Best‘, or a Lunchbox Red Card?
3. Great expectations
In Australia, preschool/kindy is the year before formal schooling starts. These kids are 4 – we are talking about people who can’t wipe their own bums. Yet the official learning framework is astonishing. Teachers have to document every artwork, record every project, and provide individual reports each term explaining why activities were chosen and what was achieved. Play has become an exercise in box-ticking. Is it any wonder that the contents of lunch boxes are being scrutinised?
The life skills which children learn as they become school-ready are hard to quantify. They’re a long game, and often influenced by a child’s individual development. Being able to be angry or disappointed without hitting another child. Being able to tell a grownup if they feel unsure or unsafe. Being able to enjoy a sweet treat as part of a balanced meal… The learning folder sent home at the end of the year is meaningless, if meeting those learning outcomes is happening at the expense of the capacity to regulate behaviours children will need in order to thrive as they move on to school.
4. Good nutrition doesn’t start (or end) with kindy
What kind of lactivist would I be if I couldn’t find a way to work breastfeeding into this? It’s kind of obvious though – by the time a child gets to little lunch, there are already years of food choices, habits, and appetite regulation under the bridge.
We hear a lot about the obesity epidemic, and occasionally part of this discussion is the link between formula feeding and obesity. Unfortunately far too often this plays into our cultural narratives about fat, in which the use of formula is linked in with contempt and disgust for fatness (lazy/ignorant/gross) and breastfeeding is twisted into some kind of fat-phobic virtue signalling. I’m not going to waste my time debunking this because it’s clearly moronic. BUT on a basic biological level, yes – there are links between obesity and formula use.
There are many factors for this; a primary factor appears to be the presence in human breastmilk of hormones which influence infant feeding patterns, for example adiponectin (which stimulates appetite) and leptin (which regulates satiety), which are absent from formula. Other factors include the pace and volume of bottle feeds (it’s easier to overfeed an infant using a bottle, regardless of whether it contains formula or expressed breastmilk); and there is a growing body of research relating to epigenetic effects of formula use and links between feeding method and intergenerational transmission of obesity.
All of which to say – it makes no sense to be writing policies and funding nutrition schemes for preschoolers if these efforts are not at least matched by the investment in breastfeeding support, infrastructure and policy necessary for a wholistic approach to childhood nutrition. And as an Adelaide mum, I cannot begin to express how disappointing it is to see notes like this being sent home from programs created by the same administration that defunded the breastfeeding unit at the Women’s & Children’s Hospital. It takes a lot of nerve to slap us on the wrist now when you wouldn’t help us then.
At the end of the day, I’m putting this note in my mental box marked ‘too tired for this bollocks’. They were trying to do a good thing, but went about it in a clumsy and offensive manner, and now nobody cares half as much about childhood nutrition as they do about state-sanctioned sanctimony. I hope this small child got to enjoy their chocolate slice for afternoon tea once they got home. And who knows, maybe parents across Australia will take part in a Lunchbox Up Yours and pack whole batches of hedgehog in resistance together. Sounds delicious.