Food Culture in Schools

By: The Grinch Who Stole Valentine’s Day

This blog post has been nibbling at my conscience for a number of years now. Time to put it on paper… er… laptop.

IMG_7583When my son entered school, I started to realize I was about to lose control over many aspects of his life. Nowhere has this become more apparent than with his diet.

“Wait… don’t you still pack his lunch?”

Yes.

“Don’t you provide breakfast and dinner and snacks?”

Yes.

But let me tell you about last Friday:

  • cheese pizza with white crust
  • a cupcake
  • 2 cookies
  • 2 packages of pop rocks
  • 7 suckers
  • 5 packages of smarties
  • a bag of skittles
  • 8 wrapped chocolates and
  • a package of gum

This is what my son got at school on the Friday before Valentine’s day. None of this was supplied by me, and it is happening over and over again.

I don’t want to point fingers here. It won’t help anyway. The solution has to come from all angles (school boards, principals, parents, teachers, and even children themselves) because the food is coming from all angles!

Unhealthy eating is a systemic problem. It is a problem in most schools, and with society in general. But when kids are in elementary school, we are in a unique position to help them develop healthy eating habits when they are the most impressionable, and WE MUST DO BETTER!

Special Events and Holidays:

IMG_20131108_131254Remember school parties before holidays when you were a kid? We might get one cupcake or a cookie. It was a big deal. Valentine’s day? The cards in the paper bag were enough. Now, it is moderately difficult to find School Valentine Cards that don’t come with a slot for a sucker. Now, kids come to school the day before Christmas break, or Valentine’s day, or Halloween, bearing a 24-cupcake holder, or a big bag of treats to share. Notices even come home from the teachers inviting treats.

What About Birthdays?

My son is in a class of 20. Next door, there is a similar class, and they often gather as a whole group for lessons or activities. When someone has a birthday from either room, they often bring cupcakes, or timbits, or muffins, or cookies for both classes. He says that rarely a week goes by without a treat coming to class. That’s 40 kids. That’s a lot of birthdays.

251929_4250088569614_1642263949_nOne of my many hobbies is cake decorating. I think kids should have cake …. on their
birthdays, family birthdays, friend birthdays… of course! But extra ones at school for every kid in their class? Every time? NO WAY! My son doesn’t even consider these things treats anymore. A cupcake? No big deal. A trip to Timmy’s? “Meh.”

The children have developed this expectation, and parents feed it (pun intended). Of course I understand this. No parent wants his or her kid to be the only one not bringing treats. There is a sense of competition, of “one-up-man-ship” among parents, and it has to stop. Again, I’m not pointing fingers. Almost everyone is doing it.

And Other Days?

Sometimes it isn’t even for a holiday or a birthday. My child has been given popsicles for outdoor sport days, s’mores for “camping” day, cupcakes for fundraisers, and once, a whole month of “cultural” sweets brought in daily by a different child to celebrate their unique countries of origin.

Pizza days at our school happen every Friday. You can opt in or out for an entire term.  You can be the mean parent who doesn’t let their kid have pizza for lunch every single Friday, or you can go with the flow. There is no middle ground.

Then again, Ontario’s School Food and Beverage Policy would have us believe that pizza is a healthy choice. Which, if covered in vegetables, made with a whole wheat crust, low fat cheese and sans meat, it certainly would be. That is not what they serve. Let’s talk about that policy.

Ontario’s School Food and Beverage Policy:

Ontario has a food and beverage policy for schools. This policy restricts the types of foods that can be sold in schools. This is a great idea, and absolutely necessary, but really doesn’t address a huge part of the problem.

This is because the policy only applies to food that is sold at the school.

There is absolutely nothing stopping a teacher from bringing free donuts and cupcakes every single day of the year for his students, or from handing out chocolate bars as rewards for correct answers.

The policy also allows for 10 “special event” days when food can be sold that doesn’t fit into the guidelines (for things like bake sales etc.). This has absolutely no bearing on special event days where children are permitted (nay, encouraged?) to bring unhealthy snacks from home to share. There is no limit on these days.

Even after a cursory evaluation of Ontario’s school food policy, I noticed that foods like “baked potato chips” can make their way to the “sell most” category. 80% of the food that schools sell is supposed to come from this category. This one particular item was even used as an example of a good food choice in a training exercise for teachers on the website! In what world does this constitute healthy eating??  Even if one particular brand fits into guidelines for fat, salt and vegetables (and it is a challenge to find the one or two that do), it sends the message to kids that potato chips are a positive food choice! THIS is the policy that is supposed to help fix the problem.

Downright bizarre!

Why Should We Care?

In Ontario, almost a third of children are overweight or obese. Yup, that’s one in three. Scary.

I don’t think I have to list the long-term health effects of obesity here. Here, let me Google that for you: http://lmgtfy.com/?q=Long+term+health+effects+of+obesity

Unhealthy school food cultures undermine the very lessons the health curriculum ainathan applems to teach. My son tells me there is a sign in the gym stating “sugar is killing us” which compares the amounts of sugar in different beverages. “But, go ahead, have a cupcake, some cookies and a Popsicle!” What kind of weird mixed messages are our children getting at school?

While the Ontario Schools Food Policy does nothing to address free food, for some schools that is the main problem. So, forget help there. Without the help of a policy or a firm administration devoted to the cause, each school community is stuck developing their own food culture. In our case, it appears to be designed by children.

So what should we do?

The truth is, some schools and individual teachers ARE doing better. I gratefully applaud those who come up with creative alternatives. However, I think these brave souls are few and far between. I mean, who really wants to be the one mean teacher who won’t let the class eat cake? All the kids love the teacher who hands out candy.

Schools must realize there are alternatives. Celebrations need not revolve around food. There are so many choices, and plenty of schools have actually made no-food birthday policies. Parents can hand out other things (stickers, tattoos, pencils) if they choose. Or, perhaps birthday kids could choose a special treat, like extra recess, or maybe they get to pick the game for gym class. There can be dance parties, class board games….the possibilities are endless!  Food should never be used as a reward or incentive.

Frankly, the kids are bored of cupcakes anyway!

I found this link, which is amazing and full of great ideas. Please visit it:

http://www.conejousd.org/Portals/61/ChildNutrition/Docs/NonFoodCelebrations.pdf

I’m no health nut. There is ice cream in my freezer and cookies in my cupboard. Of COURSE my kids get treats. I’m not even opposed to the occasional treat in school. I’m opposed to a stream of sugar being poured down my son’s throat that I have absolutely no control over.

So, the line must be drawn, and it must be drawn soon.

If you are in a position to help change this, wherever you are, please do so.

Our children’s lives literally depend on it.

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4 Responses to Food Culture in Schools

  1. The outstanding wife says:

    I hear you! I could launch into a rant on this subject, but I think you have said it all perfectly.

  2. 67merrill says:

    You are so right, and, although I don’t have children, I’m sure that children and parents face the same kind of situation here in the U.S. It seems to me, and sorry to sound paranoid here, that it’s nothing short of a conspiracy to “dumb down the public,” very much like what happened in Rome. Do we really think that governments and health officials are SO stupid as to think that sugar is a food group and you can eat as much as you like with no consequences? Or is it the case that food manufacturers discovered long ago that sugar, salt and fat keep us coming back to their product – in short, addicting us, and they have a great deal of power (at least here) in lobbying government policy-makers. A “bread and circuses” policy, designed to keep the masses stupefied and in control, so governments and the powers behind them can get on with running things without interference, is a simple and efficient way to maintain the status quo. Unfortunately, it also makes us fat and sick, so the policy is pretty short-sighted. But what’s new, right?

    • Thanks for your comment. Since reading this I heard about a breakfast program in Texas serving kids lucky charms, pancakes, waffles and egg & sausage biscuits…every day. So yes, things are bad in the states.

      I am now trying to get public health involved at our school to improve the situation. I prefer to believe that people have good intentions but just don’t always make the best health choices, even when making policy.

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