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School junk food ban (sort of) — Good Parenting

Welcome to Good Parenting, our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Headshot2011School junk food ban (sort of) — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Our family has settled into the school year routine with one interesting complication. This year, for the first time, parents have been asked by “The Fourth Grade Team” to send only nutritious snacks. The letter gave a brief rationale — because lunch is so late in the day – and even gave a couple of suggestions of what to send in. What a breath of fresh air! I have often felt as if I was a lone warrior in the campaign to keep junk food out of my child’s diet. It seems that just about any reason is given — good behavior, sports victories, holidays, etc. — to justify sugary drinks, white flour confections, and foods with more non-food ingredients than actual food. I know other parents who homeschool their children because of the added benefit that their children will only have healthy choices to eat.

With a family that pays attention to what goes in us, I have often shaken my head at what the adults at school — parents as well as staff — consider appropriate to give the children.

So I thought things were starting to look up when the teachers made this request of all the fourth grade parents. Imagine my shock and disappointment when my daughter came home with a pack of candy in her backpack. She said she got to pick it from the teacher’s candy shelf because she behaved well.

What kind of lesson is this?


Don’t miss last week’s column School Bus Behavior.

Dear Perplexed,

It’s too bad your daughter’s teacher is not supporting the junk food ban with her own choices of what to give the children. And that she is using food — sweets at that! — to reward behavior. More and more children have food allergies and sensitivities these days. I would think teachers would refrain from giving children any food without parental consent. And the whole business of “treating” a child with food that can harm her teeth, appetite, immune system, and deportment has long been abandoned by educators and parents who pay attention to such things.

We’re now trying to reverse a few generations of declining nutrition habits. How much easier it would be if the adults could all agree to follow sound nutrition advice and not confuse the children.

Do you think you have any allies at all among the other parents? If more parents speak up, this teacher might be less inclined to ignore all the proof that a lackadaisical attitude about junk food is causing more and more problems for children. Today’s child has fewer opportunities to burn off excess fat and sugar with exercise. Today’s families are using more “convenience” foods (typically these are lower in nutritional value) to cut time in the kitchen. As a result, the country is seeing a sharp rise in childhood obesity and diabetes. Overweight children suffer social consequences and often have self-esteem challenges. Body image concerns can lead to anorexia and bulimia starting in middle school. If you discuss your disappointment with your daughter’s teacher she might get the hint that there are parents who are concerned about the consequences of what their children eat. If there are one or two other parents who are alarmed by the teacher’s use of candy — in an age when children need all the help they can get to make good choices for health and fitness — encourage them to speak up to the teacher, too. Believe it or not, I have heard of dental offices and pediatric offices shelling out candies to children. Until enough parents speak up, this will not change. The children can’t be expected to say to an authority figure, “No, thank you, I’m trying to stay healthy.”

A quicker approach to solving the problem could come from working your way up. Where did the fourth-grade letter originate? If it turns out that another fourth-grade teacher is the one who is trying to transform the food culture at your school, he or she might welcome your assistance in the campaign. If the principal had a hand in this action, he or she needs to know that your daughter’s teacher is somehow missing the point about making good choices for the children so they can learn to make good choices for themselves.

Any member of the Board of Education would be interested to hear your story. They help to decide on policies, including a school policy on wellness, to serve the best interests of students. Board members depend on parents to voice their concerns to them. Contact information can be found on the Board of Education website.  

The top of this food-chain, so to speak, is Jodi Risse, Supervisor of Food and Nutrition Services for Anne Arundel County Public Schools. She welcomes parents to call and email her. She is proud that in addition to the emphasis in the school menus on whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies, and low-fat foods, many schools are taking on practices to help children form good nutrition habits for life. Contact information for Ms. Risse is found on the Anne Arundel County schools website.

And if you would like to carry this a step further up, First Lady Michelle Obama has been championing healthy food choices for children through her Let’s Move initiative http://www.letsmove.gov/eat-healthy. Follow links on this page to find lots of food suggestions and recipes.

A country of healthy children, through healthy food choices, is within our grasp.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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