The Humanist Dilemma: Is My Nextdoor Neighbor Ignoring Her Son’s Nutritional Needs?

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Meals on Wheels? I drive my nextdoor neighbor’s son to school a few times a week. In our short conversations, I’ve started to pick up on the idea that he isn’t eating very well. He says he wishes his mom would pack him a lunch and that he sometimes eats Doritos for breakfast. I’m not extremely close with his parents, but they seem like really nice people, and they work non-traditional hours so they may be doing meals when it’s more convenient. Still, I’ve started to wonder if I should somehow get more involved to be sure this young boy is getting the nutrition he needs. I have no idea how I’d go a about it (or if I even should).

—Concerned Carpooler


Dear Carpooler,

This is indeed a sensitive question. Of course, you want to help this child if he’s not getting enough to eat or the right foods at the right times, but you don’t want to step on his parents if they are hypersensitive to any suggestion that they are not properly caring for their son—even if it’s true.

Often when a person drives someone’s child to school, they have one of their own kids along. If that’s the case, maybe you can ask your child to do a little sleuthing as to whether your neighbor isn’t getting the fruits and veggies he needs. Or you can just proceed based on the sparse, inconclusive clues that you’ve gathered so far.

Since you communicate with the parents at least enough to coordinate the rides to school, during one of these conversations, you could casually slip in something such as, “We’d be happy to have Johnny drop in for breakfast before we head to school” or “I know your hours are tough. It would be no trouble for us to make him an extra sandwich while we’re making ours.” (This is only assuming you really would be glad to do this.)

If any further information leads you to believe the child needs help that the parents aren’t providing, you could contact the school and alert them to your concerns. Beyond that, there is Child Protective Services.

But without further evidence of a genuine problem, all of these steps risk overstepping, disrupting your relationship with the family, and losing your opportunity to help the child. So be very careful not to alienate them unless it becomes exceptionally clear that the child needs help.

I went through years of teachers and parents and even other kids complaining that I gave one of my children nothing but junk food for lunch. The fact is, I’d tried everything and that was all this one would eat, and I’d prefer to have my child consume something—anything—rather than provide an admirably nutritious, totally uneaten lunch. Ironically, many classmates were jealous of these cool lunches and were begging their parents for that instead of kale salad. As an official adult now, my offspring still eats too much junk and not enough fresh veggies, but is improving gradually—and has always thrived in terms of health and other measures of wellbeing. Maybe different individuals just have different nutritional needs at various life stages.

Although I never resented all the well-meaning people telling me I wasn’t properly feeding my kid (and giving me side-eye as an inept mother), I became weary of explaining that, after much experimentation, this is what seemed to work best for my finicky eater.

If your neighbor child seems healthy, there’s probably no major problem. But it may not be a bad idea to have some food items with you in the car to offer him during the ride or to take to school. Just run it by the parents first (e.g., “I carry a bag of snacks in the car. Is it OK to share them with Johnny?”) and check for any food allergies or other dietary restrictions.