Taking a Stand Against Junk Food in School: Why It’s Hard–But We Need to Anyway!
|February 28, 2013||Posted by Stacy under 100th Day of School, Classroom treats, Cupcakes, Food Nazis, Improving school food, Junk food in school, School parties, School policy, Sugar|
It’s February 28, and barring any unforeseen treats at school today, here’s a final tally of my first grader’s classroom junk food scores for the month: two frosted cupcakes; chocolate fudge; salt-water taffy; a bag of 100 Days of School trail mix consisting of candy corn, marshmallows, Cheez-Its, and yogurt-covered pretzels; and a big box filled with Valentine’s candy (mini candy bars, lollipops, Ring Pops, Starburst and more).* Needless to say, I am not happy.
I got up the nerve to email my son’s teacher about it yesterday (but to be clear, I do NOT feel like it is her fault; she has made an effort to limit junk food in the classroom). And I have had a letter to the school principal in my “Waiting to Be Sent” folder. It isn’t exactly one of my “Stop Feeding My Kids Junk Food at School!” rants but more of an impassioned plea. Still, I’m uneasy about sending it. You see, this speaking up stuff is hard for me. I hate being a squeaky wheel. I don’t like the thought of ruining anyone’s day. And I certainly don’t want to be branded a psycho food mom. But I believe that the issue is really important. I just can’t continue to look the other way.
Taking a stand against junk food in school can be a daunting proposition. No one wants to be that mom (or dad) who can’t go with the flow and let their kids have a treat once in a while (as naysayers like to say). But as we all know, crappy processed food doesn’t happen just once in awhile. It has become an everyday fixture in most kids’ diets—including my own, now that they’re in school. And parents who are willing to stand up and do something can be instrumental to creating a healthier school food culture.
I wish I had a dollar for every parent who wished for less junk food at school. If all of us spoke up, we would be a powerful force. Unfortunately, most will never say a word. Some may feel that they don’t have the time to get involved. Others don’t want to rock the boat or fear being viewed as the food police. And those who do speak up are sometimes scared off by the lackluster response that they get from school officials, teachers and other parents: Let’s just say not everyone gets excited about the notion of cutting back on cupcakes.
Fighting for healthier school food can feel like swimming upstream. And when others resist, it’s really easy to start doubting yourself. “Change scares the heck out of people and people are very emotional about food,” wrote long-time school food reformist Nancy Huehnergarth to me in a recent email. “I’ve been called radical, Food Nazi, macrobiotic wacko and other choice things. Since I know what I’m doing is right and the people who say such things are ignorant of the facts, I just ignore the insults.” If you do experience any push back, it’s important to remind yourself that the scientific evidence on YOUR side.
“We are moving in the right direction,” adds Heuhnergarth, co-founder of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance. “Change is slow but without people like you, there would never be any. Without people fighting at the local level, we are doomed. So keep up the good fight!”
Yesterday, in a U.S. News & World Report story titled “Shutting Down Your Children’s Sugar Pushers,” the venerable Yoni Freedhoff, M.D., of Weighty Matters, offered a similar rallying cry:
“As parents, this is our fight, and it’s not going to happen all by itself. While you’re unlikely to win every battle, there’s no doubt, you’ll never win any if you just sit idly by hoping for someone else to do what you already know to be right. Our kids deserve better than to be taught that sugar cures, fixes, and commemorates the smallest of events and affairs, and it’s our job to help empower those around us to find the time, energy, and creativity required to take the less easy, but far more rewarding, healthful road.”
I know what he says is true. It’s hard to speak up. But if I don’t, nothing may ever change. As much as I think that all state government and local school districts should have policies regulating junk food in the classroom, many (including mine) don’t. So at this point, our only hope is to fight back ourselves.
So I guess it’s time to put my money where my mouth is. On your mark, get set…it’s time for me to press “Send.” Bye-bye, email to the principal. Off you go! Even if it doesn’t result in immediate changes at my son’s school (and I really don’t expect that it will), at least I will have brought awareness to the situation and spoken my peace.
*The above photo is a representation of my first grader’s school junk food consumption during February (minus the candy corn, Cheez-Its and taffy). It doesn’t take into account the many additional treats (including at least three more cupcakes, Oreos, Rice Krispie treats, Doritos, and I’m not sure what else) obtained at after-hours school events, birthday and hockey parties, and from well-meaning people in his life.
P.S. In case you’re still debating whether to speak up for healthier school food, check out this email exchange between a concerned mother and a teacher at her first grader’s school. Mom was unhappy about M&Ms being used to motivate students. After asking the teacher to switch to non-food rewards, she was met with resistance and advised to talk to her child about refusing the treat instead. Instead of backing down, Mom fought back—and won! This is a true story sent to me by a School Bites reader:
Dear Concerned Mom,
I totally understand your concern about treats and junk food, and I agree that it is a problem. I have been offering the children the choice of a sticker or an M&M and Emily continues to opt for the M&M. But starting next week, I will no longer offer M&Ms. The children can work for non-edible rewards. I appreciate your input.
Have a great week,
Dear Amazing Teacher,
I have to tell you that I cried when I read your email. Every teacher or principal who makes the decision that you just did will make a difference. It’s really hard to be the one to speak out. I am not one to stir the pot and have for a good part of my life not spoken out about a lot of things. But I feel so passionate about this and feel that I have to do it for our children. I appreciate you willing to make a change and I hope that you feel good about it and not “bullied” into it.
You have a great week.
Q. Have you tried speaking up about the junk food in your child’s school? If so, how did it go for you? Please share your story with other readers by leaving a comment down below.
Interested in the latest school food news, fun food ideas for kids, or connecting with others who share your healthy views? Go to my School Bites Facebook page and click “LIKE” to join our community and get School Bites in your newsfeed.
Can’t wait to hear your teacher’s response — and the principal’s, too! Love that you kept a tally for a whole month. Unbelievable! My boys haven’t started kindergarten yet, and their preschool really emphasizes healthy eating, so I haven’t yet stepped into the fray, but I know it’s coming. Keep being the squeaky wheel!
Thanks, Suzanne. I appreciate your input and support. I’m sure I missed some junk food in the tally. It’s bad!
Thanks for the idea of tracking the junk accumulated in one month. I’m going to meeting with the principal of my kindergartener’s school soon, and I’d love to be able to present the numbers to show how excessive “just one” gets to be.
Thanks, Katie! Another idea is to attempt to calculate how much sugar they’ve eaten and bring in a bag filled with an equal amount of white stuff. Visuals can be powerful.
AWESOME! It is definitely so hard to speak up (for all the reasons you so perfectly outlined) but it is imperative that we do. My daughter is in Kindergarten…I’m just starting this fight but it’s gaining momentum and I’m getting others involved. Thank you for being such an inspiration!
Thank you, Jeanne! It certainly helps to get positive comments like yours. I wish you lots of GOOD LUCK with your crusade. Please let us know how it goes, either on the blog or my Facebook page (would love to have you on there, if you aren’t already!).
This is great! I too have tried on several occasions…and although I keep getting shut down, I keep on starting up!
In our school when my daughter was in kindergarten ( this yr she is first) I had gone as far as offering my services free. During the time I was “awarded” 60 seconds with the principal, she explained that there was no time to educate the children and teachers about better choices due to time constraints with each school subject. Ok, that’s fine, I thought to myself. But I know there are some amazingly creative teachers out there who could find a way of integrating health and nutrition into science and math.
The principal went on to say (as I handed her Dr. Katz, Nutrition Detectives) that they will be having a meeting in Nov regarding such things, and it was only April…sadly I have yet to hear back.
This year we are in a different school (same district), and happily both kiddos teachers are ‘almost’ completely against candy in the classroom. So, I know there is hope, which is what keeps me moving forward. I look forward to more thoughts and ideas on this topic. Maybe with enough of us, we can make a difference that could go nationwide!
Jackie — I really admire your perseverance! It’s really hard when you don’t have an interested or supportive principal. I’m lucky to have one at my first grader’s school but it’s still proving difficult to make changes. Have you checked out your school district wellness policy yet? Perhaps there are already policies that are not being implemented? It would give you a good leg to stand on. Technically all schools participating in the National Lunch Program should have a policy that stipulates for nutrition education. Glad to hear that the teachers are (almost) on your page. I do think that if enough parents become willing to speak up about what I view as a huge junk food problem in schools, then maybe, just maybe, we can made a difference!
Thank you for confirming that I am not alone in speaking up about this egregious practice of using sugar rewards. Luckily, I have trained my daughter to ask before consuming My daughter’s teacher offers a choice box after 10 stickers. She had chosen a “blue” lollipop! I promptly traded it for a toy, at my expense. I reported this to the teacher and was told that it was not common to have food in the choice box and that my daughter had made that choice!!
The positive is that the teacher did respond to my request to remove food choices.
Constant vigilance. In this case, lots of little bits of sugar have added up to 150lbs per person per year, average. And this is not new math calculations.….
Rebecca, you are definitely not alone!! I just wish there were more of us. So glad to hear that your daughter’s teacher has removed the food from the prize box. It’s a great example how one parent speaking up can have an impact! Thank you for visiting and I hope you will join us over at http://www.facebook.com/SchoolBites for some school food conversation!
I wrote an email to the principal after this past Vday party at school. My 3rd grader had Philly Soft Pretzels (a whole one for each @ 1000 mg of salt), iced Oatmeal cookies, rice Krispy treats on a stick with two pieces of an orange AND a bagful of candy from classmates as it was Vday! My 4th graders class was just as bad and they even handed out handfuls of Hershey Kisses and Jolly Ranchers on top of a chocolate treat and the teacher brought in Dunkin Donuts because she wanted to do something from her… I did not go overboard in my email to the principal, I was gentle and her response was a pat on the back for letting her know followed by a smiley face beside her name. I am happy to go to bat for these kids but I’ve gotten no where so far. My kids have celiac Disease & the teachers do ask what junk they can give my kids as rewards/incentives and my response is always the same, “Can’t you give them much needed pencils, stickers or Barnes and Noble gift cards?” My kids are participating in Read Across America @ school. Want to know the prize for the top readers? Ice cream gift cards. Yes, I wrote the principal but she ignored me.
Michelle — I hear you and completely understand your frustration. First thing that I suggest doing is digging up a copy of your school district wellness policy and see if it includes anything about food rewards and classroom food. Since the school principal doesn’t seem to be taking your concerns seriously, I think you need to go up the ladder. Is there anyone in the school district administration who might be sympathetic? Also, the principal and administration are more likely to listen if they are getting complaints from numerous parents. So try to find some who will back you up. I personally think it’s outrageous that schools are not making the health of their students (and staff) a priority, and that wellness decisions are being left in the hands of principals and teachers who don’t seem up to speed on the latest thinking about food rewards and limiting junk food. Making the link between good nutrition and academic achievement could be helpful when talking to school admin. Check out pages 6–9 of this report for more info: http://www.genyouthfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/The_Wellness_Impact_Report.pdf. Please feel free to write back if you have any Qs–I would love to help if I can!
[…] and before you go: You may want to read Taking a Stand Against Junk Food in School: Why It’s Hard–But We Need to Do It Anyway and Why Candy Valentines Don’t Belong in School (and What You Can Do About […]
[…] Taking a Stand Against Junk Food in School: Why It’s Hard – But We Need to Do It Anyway! (school-bites.com) […]
[…] haven’t had much success tackling the junk food problem at my first grader’s school (SEE: Taking a Stand Against Junk Food and Please Stop Feeding My Kids Junk Food at School!), this school year has brought some very […]
I speak up regularly about junk in the classroom to both my sons’ teachers and the principal. I always make a point to be polite and to offer research and alternatives to the lousy traditions (like rewarding good behavior with candy), but have mostly had a negative experience. I get lots of thanks for my suggestions and no action. I’ve been told by the PTA president that no one at our school is interested in this issue or in forming a Wellness committee. One teacher actually told me she considers it her responsibility to teach the kids about moderation by giving them treats(!). Another teacher told me it’s in the state’s lesson plan to use M&Ms and other candies for kindergarten math sorting activities. Another parent suggested I need to learn how to cut loose and have a good time. I do keep speaking up, but am really so very tired of it all!
Ack! Amy, that is not the kind of story that I like to hear. And unfortunately, I can relate. It is very tiresome and easy to get discouraged! Have you found ANY other parents or teachers at the school who share your views? Is there anyone in your community that you could reach out to for help? Have you thought about going to your school board? The kinds of things that you describe are NOT ok. Our schools should be supporting healthy eating. If you want to discuss further, send me an email via the contact page.
Soccer (and the junk that normally comes with it) has started again this week for our kids. 4 kids and 3 teams. The coach for my 7 yr old’s team said he would send an email out about snacks after one of the moms reminded him about snacks. Afterwards I spoke with him and asked if he could ask that parents bring only healthy snacks (preferably fruit) and to leave out the Gatorade. He said that he and his wife were on the same page about that and that he would do that. If I hadn’t said anything, I don’t think he would have mentioned it. It will be interesting to see what he actually says in the email and what people bring. I signed up to be the first one bringing snack and I will bring oranges. Hopefully, that will get the ball rolling.
Suzanne, that’s awesome!! I’m SO glad you spoke up and got a good response! I just signed up all three of my kids for t-ball. I sent an email to the league organizer about encouraging parents to bring only fresh fruit and water (or not doing team snacks at all) but haven’t gotten a response. Please let me know if your son’s coach ends up following through–and if the other parents comply. Fingers crossed!