Rant of the Day: Please Stop Feeding My Kids Junk Food at School!
|February 7, 2013
|Posted by Stacy under Junk food in school
Last night at dinner, my first grader described the big cupcake that he ate yesterday at school in honor of a classmate’s birthday. Between bites of pasta mixed with spinach-walnut pesto, he offered a detailed account of chocolate cake, colored sprinkles and a copious pile of frosting. I, of course, couldn’t help but wince. Because, you see, his class had chowed down on cupcakes just last Friday. And over the weekend, he’d attended a birthday party with (you guessed it!) more cupcakes.
Yesterday morning, in another part of the school, the monthly Food & Fun nutrition class for the 5th grade was held. New as of this school year, the lessons are designed to teach kids about healthy eating through interactive lessons and food tastings. Volunteers had cooked up a delicious treat for students made with fresh apples and blueberries. But most of the kids never even sampled it because they’d arrived eating chocolate cupcakes and eclairs from a classroom birthday celebration.
As some of you may know, it was frustration over the constant parade of junk food at my son’s elementary school that inspired me to start this blog in the first place. That was last April. When 2012–2013 school year began, it felt like things were looking up. We’d successfully launched a Wellness Committee that was producing a monthly newsletter and distributing healthy classroom snack ideas. The principal put a statement in the school handbook requesting nutritious nibbles at parties. And my son’s wellness-minded teacher announced that group birthday celebrations (with healthy snacks only, please!) would be held once a month.
The first sign of trouble came at the end of October, when a parent decided that cookie decorating would be a killer idea for the class Halloween party. Before I could say a word, another mom had signed up to bring supplies. What resulted is the neon-colored monstrosity (which I’ve nicknamed the Halloween Cookie Massacre) pictured above. Six weeks later, cookie decorating was again the featured activity at the class Christmas party. But this time, I offered to bring the goods—small whole-wheat gingerbread cookies with a simple white glaze and naturally colored sprinkles.
But anyway…last night’s tale of cupcakes left me scratching my head and pondering: How is this OK?!? Is it really fair to parents who are working hard to get their kids to eat healthy? Is it fair to our kids, who are being handed crappy food right and left, who are counting on us adults to teach them how to feed their bodies and stay healthy? Is it fair to the children with food allergies, who are being excluded from the unannounced sugar orges? Is it fair to me, who woke up at 5 a.m. to pack my child a nutritious lunch only to have it come home uneaten?
Some people will say, “It’s just a cupcake—relax!” But they may not have factored in the M&Ms that my child got from the school bus driver. Or the frosted cookie that Grandma gave him after school. Or the Skittles that he scored at the bank. Or the Oreos that another mom handed him after hockey practice. As parents, we can do everything that we can to teach our children to make good food choices. But mine are at the age that they’re not able to make good choices on their own. Most adults find it difficult, if not impossible, to resist the lure of junk food. How on earth can we expect it from young kids?
As a parent, I have a choice whether or not to let my kids go to birthday parties. Of course, I let them go. And when I do, I realize that they’re probably going to be fed a lot of sugar and junk. I am OK with that (sort of). But I don’t have a choice about whether or not to send my children to school. So when I send them, I expect them to be well cared for–which means being fed good quality food, not highly processed, sugary blech.
I realize that many people don’t like the idea of having rules regulating classroom food. And educators often don’t want to rock the boat. My son’s school has decided to go the way of “positive encouragement.” But I fear that it isn’t enough. At this point, I think the best chance that we have of changing the food environment at our schools is with stronger policies—at the federal, state and local level. Research shows that strong policies specifying the kinds of foods that can be served at school can be very effective. So my next goal is to try to get our school district to strengthen its wellness policy (which is weak and outdated). I will be posting more about it in the coming weeks.
As I’m discovering, it is very hard to make change, even in a relatively healthy community like mine. People are ingrained in their ways. Traditions (like celebrating achievements with an ice-cream party or serving hot dogs, cookies and cocoa at the school Skate Night) are passed along from year to year. Some parents and educators just don’t see a problem with all the junk food; others know it isn’t good but don’t feel strongly enough to do anything about it; still others are wary of speaking their mind.
There have been many ups and downs since I started my crusade. I know that it’s important to take them in stride, keep smiling, and continue moving forward. So that’s what I plan to do. As frustrating as it may be, I’m not ready to give up. I do believe that even small things like dropping off a bag of apples for your child’s class to snack on can make a difference. But for true change to happen, I think government officials and school administrators will need to wake up to the seriousness of the problem and take a firmer stance.
In the meantime, I encourage those of you who care about this issue to speak up! Talk to other parents, try to identify allies and ask for their support. Ask your child’s teacher to encourage healthy snacks or limit classroom parties to once a month. Talk to your school principal and your parent’s association about ways to improve the quality of the food at school events. Find out if your school has a wellness committee and request to be on it. Check your school district wellness policy to see if it meets federal requirements (and if not, ask if you can be involved in updating it). Be polite and professional, but no matter what, don’t back down!
And that’s my rant of the day!
P.S. If you have any thoughts or insights on how to create a healthier school, please leave them in the comments section. I love getting feedback, and it could be helpful to other readers.