Feb 14: Another Day for Schools to Junk Your Kids

02/14/2017 12:02 pm ET | Updated 6 days ago

It’s Valentine’s Day … time for classroom parties! Over-frosted cupcakes, chocolate candies, and heart-shaped cookies will be in generous supply. Schools today will be awash in pink and red, perhaps even including beverages that chase down all the goodies. Today will be an artificially colored, artificially flavored, and artificially sweetened bonanza.

School celebrations can be joyous, and who doesn’t want joy for their kids? But do celebrations have to mean food? And if so, who gets to decide which foods to include? Also, what makes certain foods “treats”? And does the frequency of provision matter?

Last year, I published a commentary in JAMA exploring questions like these. What had inspired the piece was frustration that my one-time 1st-grader—whose daily lunch and snack I unfailingly provided—regularly received candy, chips, cookies, and sweetened drinks at school without my sanction, without my permission … indeed, without even my knowledge (at least prospective knowledge). Retrospectively, I figured things out when packed favorites began coming home uneaten and I started asking questions.

Early questions like “how is it there is so much food left in your lunch bag again?” evolved into broader questions:

Who should decide what a child eats at school? Other children’s parents? The teacher? An administrator? The child’s parents? The child? Is it defensible that school foods operate under an opt-out model, relying on vulnerable young children to decline unhealthful but desirable items that are offered by trusted adults? … and to do so in the context of most/all of their classmates accepting?

It occurred to me that maybe we need to think about all this a little more and make some changes. So I thought about it. And I wrote the piece in JAMA.

Since publication, I have received emails from across the country and around the world from parents (who are physicians, pharmacists, health coaches, lawyers, public health professional, and others) frustrated by the food in their own kids’ schools. Parents have been grateful that I named the issues and provided some guidance:

“I found myself reading your article and nodding along, even verbalizing veritable ‘amens.’ ”
“You captured how I feel about this issue so effectively! I have sent it on and started a dialogue about it with my daughter’s preschool as a result”
“I read your JAMA article at the time of publication ... It so well represented my thoughts and feelings on nutrition as a parent and physician that I knew it would prove to be a valuable resource for me. Recently, my child's elementary school and district have begun to examine how and what foods children are able to purchase. I immediately responded by forwarding your article as an excellent primer for discussion and action. I'm confident that positive meaningful changes will occur as a direct result.”

I hope positive changes do occur. At my own son’s school, some already have.

In response to concerns shared through my article—and to those shared through a longer policy proposal I drafted along with other concerned parents—the leadership at my son’s school formed a food and nutrition committee. Comprised of faculty and administrators, the group is less than year old but has already instituted some encouraging new policies.

Most noteworthy is that children now celebrate class birthday parties with fun activities instead of outside foods. In other words, kids get up and move rather than shovel junk into their faces. Cupcakes, cookies, chips, and sweetened beverages are now an unhealthful supplement to (or replacement for) lunch nearly 20 fewer times per year.

There are, however, still occasions and events where kids might partake in less-healthful fare at the school—occasions where junk is not only provided, but celebrated. Today, Valentine’s Day, is emblematic. In fact, there was a parent sign-up sheet circulating just last week for my son’s class, seeking volunteers to bring in “treats” (inevitably ultra-processed and highly sugared items if past experience is any indicator) and “juice boxes”

But why?

The arguments against refined snacks and sugary drinks (especially in school) are too numerous to list here. My JAMA piece provides a primer. There is also another free resource I’ve learned about since. In fact, there is lots of other good work from those interested in improving school food and teaching kids to make healthy choices that may be of use to interested parents, motivated administrators, committed teachers, and caring clinicians.

So now we just have to inspire change. I hope my article can help. As two of my readers wrote me:

“I hope [your piece] will encourage other parents to get involved in this sort of positive intervention in schools. A copy [of your article] is going to friends in Canada and the UK today!
“I will save your article to share with others, and will use it in my teaching.”

Today is Valentine’s Day. It’s all about love. Let’s share the love and share the message. Let’s help our kids live joyous, nourishing, healthful lives and get the most out of their experiences at school. Let’s help protect them from so frequently being junked.

Laura Ockel

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