Contrary to popular reports, the recent School Food Plan for England and Wales does not call for packed lunches to be banned. However, the idea of a ban, mooted by Henry Dimbleby – one of the report’s authors – is interesting because of the response it has provoked. Dimbleby suggests that a blanket ban might be unwise because “There’s a strong libertarian streak in the English”. Sure enough, ‘Fleet Street Fox’ raises the spectre of totalitarianism in the Mirror, describing the idea in the following terms: “So [packed lunches] must be banned, he says. Not improved. Not guidelined. Not discussed. Just banned, like thought in China.” The frothy outrage is reminiscent of the common objections to the proposal of ‘Meat Free Mondays’ in certain dining halls – presented as a matter of freedom and rights.
In general, the idea that people should have the ability to decide for themselves what goes in their own mouths is surely uncontroversial. This is a fairly clear example of the sort of autonomy that anybody with any sympathy for liberalism is bound to respect. Yet at the same time, there are very few freedoms which are entirely unconditional or unconstrained, if for no other reason than to avoid them restricting other valuable freedoms. On what grounds might it be morally legitimate to override this freedom?
The most obvious argument is the paternalist one – where a freedom is likely to be misused in a way harmful to the agent, it is sometimes right to require them to act in a more prudent way. This is the logic behind requiring people to wear seatbelts, or prohibiting them from taking harmful recreational drugs. In the case of compulsory school meals, the government or school would be taking away children (or parents’) freedom to choose their own lunches, because the negative consequences of these actions for their health are too great.
A second argument posits that compulsory school lunches are legitimate because children are incapable of full autonomy, and so infringing their freedom is less morally significant. Because children are generally less informed, not fully educated and perhaps not capable of full rationality yet, their choices are less worthy of respect and protection. In most countries, children below a certain age – usually 16 – are not judged capable of deciding that they don’t want to go to school.
This argument is complicated by the fact that most children don’t have much control over their diet anyway – their parents decide what they eat. In this case, the question is the more contentious one of whether the state or parents should have control over children. The most plausible response is that both should have a role to play – the state should not dominate child rearing, but nor should it treat children as the property of their guardians, free to treat them as they wish. Just as children cannot unilaterally decide to quit school before they reach an appropriate age, nor can their parents decide to pull them out. This is because in certain cases it is necessary for the state to protect the interests of children from their parents.
Finally, compulsory school lunches can be defended on the grounds that they enhance freedom in the long term. For a start, improving a person’s physical health means that they are likely to be able to do more physically strenuous things for longer as they get older. Moreover, there is the possibility that school meals will introduce children to different tastes, ingredients and styles of food, and alert them to different food cultures, or ways of relating to food, thus expanding their set of options.
These arguments are not at all mutually exclusive – indeed, they feed off one another. The paternalistic argument is all the stronger for the diminished autonomy of children and if its benefit involves greater freedom as well as better health. The paternalistic argument gives a justification for overriding parents’ desires for their children.