The Council of State, which rules on matters of public administration, on Monday found in favour of families in Benevento, in the southern region of Campania, who objected to being told that their children had to eat lunches provided by the school canteen.
The city council had sought to make canteen meals compulsory, a move that the court judged was "not backed up by concrete, proven reasons of public health or hygiene, nor commensurate with a reasonable balance".
While Benevento argued that allowing pupils to bring in food prepared at home could compromise the collective health and safety of its facilities, the Council of State found that the freedom to choose what you eat outweighed such concerns.
Its decision was hailed by lawyers representing some 50 families who challenged the ban as a victory for "families' autonomy".
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A regional court had already ruled against the packed lunch ban, prompting Benevento's council to take the case to a higher authority – unsuccessfully. It is the first time Italy's supreme administrative court has ruled on the matter of school lunches and will likely have consequences for similar appeals in other cities.
Previously regional courts have come down on different sides of the argument, with the tribunal of Naples last year finding that children's right to health and equality should come before parents' right to choose.
While authorities have no say over what parents put in a packed lunch, Italy sets nutritional standards for school meals that limit the amount of fat they can contain, require fruit and vegetables to be included and encourage the use of varied, seasonal ingredients.
Proponents of a packed lunch ban argue that children who don't eat the healthy lunches provided by Italian schools – which are usually subsidized for low-income families – may miss out on well-balanced meals and the chance to develop good eating habits.
Photo: Kristie Prada