A Food In the Classroom Horror Story

by Bettina Elias Siegel on October 25, 2012

Just in time for Halloween, I wanted to share a food-in-the-classroom horror story sent to me a few weeks ago by a reader from Ohio.  Here’s what she told me:

At kindergarten orientation the teacher went over classroom stuff and passed around clipboards for parents to volunteer, etc. One of the clipboards was for parents to bring in ABC Snacks, which paired a food with each letter. For example: marshmallows for M, cookies for C, Oreos for O, dinosaur fruit snacks for D, brownies for B… A couple were not so bad: grapes for G and raisins for R. Almost all were pure sugar, though.

My child is allergic to several things, and out of the 26 snacks she could only eat about 8. Most disturbing is that there were nutty bars for N. (NUTTY BARS!)

After orientation I asked the teacher, “I missed when you said this part- what’s going on with the ABC Snacks? Is it once a week they get one of these?”

She said yes and I told her (again) that my daughter has food allergies and can’t have the majority of them. She said, “Oh! I didn’t even look at this! Someone just gave me this activity. So which ones can’t she eat?”

I told her and she said, “Well, she’ll see the other kids with it and get the idea.” I said that I’d bring in some raisins for my daughter, to make her somewhat less excluded. This is not ideal, but my mind was completely blown.

Then the teacher pointed out the nutty bars and asked if it would be a problem just having them in the room with her. My kid doesn’t have airborne peanut sensitivity, so I said, “No, if she doesn’t eat them she’ll be okay. But this little boy over here was also at the peanut free table today, so it might be a problem for him.”

“Oh? There’s another peanut allergy in the room?”

To summarize, all of the forms that I filled out before school began that explained my child’s allergy were not read- at least not by her teacher. This was technically the first day of school and she had no idea that another child had a peanut allergy. Upon finding this out, it took her 4 weeks to decide not to do an activity including peanuts. Most striking for me was that she repeatedly said, “I didn’t even look at this. Someone just gave it to me.”

Yikes!

When we discussed the matter further by email, the reader told me that the problem really stemmed not from the teacher but a “bad food culture throughout the school.”   She said that PTA fundraisers and rewards usually involved junk food by default and that teachers were given no guidelines at all on the use of food in the classroom, with practices varying considerably from class to class.  She added, ” I know that in some schools, when the nurse sees a food allergy form come in she takes it to the teacher, explains it, and has the teacher sign off on it. Here, it wasn’t even communicated.”

The happy ending to this story is that after meeting with the teacher, the reader reported that the “ABC snacks” program had been dropped and that the teacher seemed to better understand that the reader’s child must not be given any food that wasn’t brought from home.

But all of this points up — again — how food in the classroom can cause all sorts of unintended problems.  Whoever thought of this “ABC snacks” idea probably just hoped the program would get little kids excited about learning their alphabet.   (And this idea dates back to the Middle Ages when Jewish teachers would drizzle honey on Hebrew letters on a child’s first day of study, to create an association between sweetness and learning.)  But as we know, there are so many reasons parents might object to food being used as a teaching tool or reward, from serious food allergies, as was the case here, to a common sense desire to limit sugary, processed foods in a child’s diet.

Click here to read the history that led to my pounding out a “manifesto.”

Once again, people, I must refer you to my Food In the Classroom Manifesto (always available on the right side of the blog), which lays out ten reasons why schools need to re-think the use of food.  Feel free to download it, copy it and share it with your child’s school to help explain why you and other parents are concerned about practices like this.

I’m going to share another reader’s food-in-the-classroom story next week, and feel free to send me yours at bettina at thelunchtray dot com.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris October 25, 2012 at 10:25 am

oi

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Bri October 25, 2012 at 10:37 am

Mind = blown.
My son’s new kindergarten teacher has been teaching the alphabet by doing a letter show and tell. The kids bring an item from home that starts with the letter of the week and put it in a “mystery bag.” They then give clues until their classmates can guess what’s inside. There’s a proud unveiling and the word gets added to the word wall so they can all see how many different items start with that letter.
The kids LOVE letter Show and Tell. Not only is it more active and engaging for them (they have to actually come up with their own, rather than having somebody put an item in front of them and tell them “this starts with A”), but it illustrates the point far better than the ABC snacks activity because it allows for MULTIPLE different words beginning with the same letters. It also helps them learn to speak in front of the group, use deductive reasoning for the guessing, etc.

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Amy October 25, 2012 at 11:48 am

Wow, that’s an appalling story on both fronts: the food choices and the teacher awareness of allergies.

With a little creativity, the ABC could still be used with healthy foods (apples, bananas, carrots, dijon mustard!), but that does not get around food allergies. I don’t understand why the teacher could not use objects, rather than food (airplanes, bicycles, cars, desert boots). But I guess you can’t eat the objects and we think kids need to eat all the time? So glad my kids are out of that stage!

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Christina @ Spoonfed October 25, 2012 at 1:02 pm

I just posted this on Facebook, but wanted to share here as well, since I developed this handout specifically to help parents address these issues with their schools: http://spoonfedblog.net/2012/09/20/handout-why-school-and-junk-food-dont-mix-and-what-educators-can-do-about-it/

My experience is that teachers and school officials are very receptive to discussing food in the classroom. As are other parents. In fact, it can feel empowering, because, with support and the right tools, parents and teachers actually can do something about how food is handled in the classroom.

The post I linked to above includes five reasons to avoid junk food in the classroom and five ways educators can make that happen. It also includes links to a variety of resources, including healthier snack lists and ideas for non-food rewards and celebrations. Hope it’s helpful for folks.

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stef October 25, 2012 at 4:45 pm

As a food allergy mom, that activity would have been my worst nightmare. So glad the teacher realized that it would leave at least one of her students out 18 times of 26 that the food was eaten. And at least one other student out on Nutty Bar day. Plus, added cross contamination and error concerns.

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stef October 25, 2012 at 4:49 pm

Also, that means kids would get food from the teacher 1x a week. and most of it treats. Add in class birthdays and parties…you’d be up to food served in the classroom every 2-3 days! That’s probably more often than kids go to music, art or PE all rolled into one.

Basically, eating treats would have become an elective!

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The Mom October 25, 2012 at 8:13 pm

Thanks to Bettina for posting my story. Normally I don’t do the anonymous thing online, but I don’t want to publicly embarrass my daughter’s teacher, who really is a sweet lady and who is working with us.

Stef, you have it absolutely pegged. I feel like our school has a Junk Food Appreciation Program. Between the “teaching snacks”, PTA fundraisers, holiday parties, kids’ birthdays… Once in a while isn’t a problem, but this is so often that I can’t even imagine that the kids will feel like cupcakes are special by the end of the year.

What’s scary is that I only know how often this is because it’s an issue with my child’s food allergies. The teacher calls me to ask if it’s okay for my daughter to eat Teddy Grahams to practice counting or to mix (and then eat) food coloring and cake frosting to learn colors. (Both of those really happened.) The parents of the other 23 kids didn’t get phone calls. They probably have no idea that on the day of the school’s big apple cider-making demonstration, the kids were given donuts to eat with the cider.

The worst, in my opinion, is that the PTA advertises fast food pizza on school property and encourages kids to get their parents to order on certain nights every month. The top-selling class gets an in-school pizza party. Every month. The other fundraisers all have food rewards, too.

When I was in school, it wasn’t like this. I didn’t know this happened. I hope that it’s not like this everywhere. I hope it will change. Thanks for your support, everyone.

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Kim October 25, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Our food culture at our elementary was just as described. Pizza, ice cream parties, and frozen yogurt gift certificates …given to my child who is anaphylactic to milk. Gee, what every child with a life threatening condition want to be rewarded with!

The absolute most disgusting thing the PTA did was to give my child Froot Loops with a note attached saying “Eat these for breakfast and you are sure to do your best on your tests!” for statewide testing. True Story.

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bw1 October 25, 2012 at 10:08 pm

The only thing shocking about this is that so many people expect anything better of the public schools.

There is no accountability for an institution that coerces both attendance and funding with the threat of incarceration at gunpoint.

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Jamie October 29, 2012 at 5:34 am

It is really terrible that a teacher did not even realize kids in her class had food allergies. I thought all the sugar was bad enough. My daughter is in kindergarten this year. They do get snacks, but the teacher requests fruits and vegetables. I have seen sugar sneak its way in though.

I just recently realized that we cannot contribute to the box top collection at our school. These don’t come on any of the foods we purchase, even the small amount of junk food that makes it into our house. Luckily, my daughter hasn’t shown any interest in this collection yet.

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Uly November 2, 2012 at 12:42 am

Box tops are on some non food products, or, if you sometimes shop online, you can shop through their portal and a portion of your spending at stores like Barnes and Nobels will be donated to the school. The box tops for education website also has freebies sometimes, and in a pinch I have been known to outright ask the person in front of me at the store if I can have their box tops! I sometimes get a yes, if their kid isn’t in a participating school.

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