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A public school in Chicago doesn’t allow students to bring lunches from home . Unless they have a medical excuse, they must eat the food served in the cafeteria:

Principal Elsa Carmona said her intention is to protect students from their own unhealthful food choices.

“Nutrition wise, it is better for the children to eat at the school,” Carmona said. “It’s about the nutrition and the excellent quality food that they are able to serve (in the lunchroom). It’s milk versus a Coke. But with allergies and any medical issue, of course, we would make an exception.”

Carmona said she created the policy six years ago after watching students bring “bottles of soda and flaming hot chips” on field trips for their lunch. Although she would not name any other schools that employ such practices, she said it was fairly common.

A Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman said she could not say how many schools prohibit packed lunches and that decision is left to the judgment of the principals.

An illegitimate usurpation of parental authority? Catholic moral theologian Jana Bennett isn’t so sure :

So the principal decided to take it upon herself to ban them except in cases of medical necessity. Granted that parents who object could likely find studies that support the opposite claims (as is usually the case when it comes to scientific studies), it is the principal in this case who has the authority to ban the lunches from her school. She’s apparently not alone in her decision to do so, but though the article treats that fact with some interest it is not really of interest according to the principle of subsidiarity. I’m particularly thinking of the following: “The principle of subsidiarity protects people from abuses by higher-level social authority and calls on these same authorities to help individuals and intermediate groups to fulfill their duties.” (Section 187, Compendium).

These days, there is a rather common cry that the “government” is taking over our lives when cases like this surface, especially since schools tend to be state-sponsored in one way or another. Education is such a prime example of this. Those who are running for office often decry the state of education and then try to push broad, sweeping bills through to show that “we mean what we say.” The No-Child Left Behind Act comes to mind.

Meanwhile, we non-politicians tend to see only the distinctions between federal and state levels, but much less so at local levels. But if we’re taking the principle of subsidiarity seriously, the feds and the state should be supporting local schools in all the ways it can, but stay out of decisions that schools themselves ought to be making – including whether it is appropriate to “teach to the test,” and how to measure their student populations’ successes . . . . We ought to trust each other more – especially the people on the ground.

Just as we ought to trust a principal to know her school and make a determination about lunches. She’s not being unfair or unjust; she’s giving students with very particular needs an out, but she’s also making a fairly-considered decision for her school.

Assuming you believe in subsidiarity (or as we neocalvinists call it, “sphere sovereignty”), do you think Bennett is right? Under subsidiarity, who should be responsible for making the determination about school lunches, parents or principals?

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