Can We Crowd-Source A Reader Question re Food in the Classroom?

by Bettina Elias Siegel on May 7, 2013

Between my recent laptop crash and this mysterious “Lunch-Tray-third-anniversary-project” I keep alluding to on Facebook, I’m falling woefully behind on various promised posts.  One such post is the answer to a question left on TLT’s Facebook page by a reader named Allison who is concerned with junk food in her child’s classroom.  Since I’m pressed for time, I’m going to share my bare bones advice for Allison, but I’d love it if my readers could chime in, too, with their own thoughts and experiences.

Here’s Allison’s post:

I have read some of your articles re: food in the classroom – and want to try to encourage our school to consider food-free classrooms (or at the very least – junk free classrooms). Can you give me advice on the best way to plant this idea w/the admin? I was thinking of compiling a notebook with articles/resources (some of yours if that is ok) to share with the principal – stuff to back me up rather than just telling him why we should go this direction. Food/junk in the classroom has always been a concern of mine – but even more so since my youngest has a severe food allergy – and will begin K in the fall. My oldest does not have food allergies – but is constantly coming home reporting to me the crap she has been given throughout the day – as rewards – as incentives – as manipulatives in learning a subject. The worst offenders tend to be the teachers who do not have children themselves (and interesting to note also have weight issues themselves). Any advice you can give me to help me try to make a difference for the health of all students I would greatly appreciate. I know there are other parents who agree with me at this school – but are not willing to step forward b/c of the backlash that most likely will occur from those parents who see nothing wrong with kids grazing all day on sugar. Thanks!

My answer:

Allison:

I totally feel your pain.  When it comes to food in the classroom, what you’re taking on is not just a classroom problem, but a much larger societal mindset which doesn’t see any problem with these practices, or which doesn’t view junk food as particularly harmful, and changing those attitudes is a very tall order for any one parent to address.  Even in my own kids’ schools, I’m glad to report that the incidence of food-as-a-reward has gone down over the years, but the practice certainly hasn’t stopped entirely.

Before turning your question over to TLT readers, here’s my quick answer:

1.  Forming a coalition of parents is always easier than going it alone.  There likely will be a backlash from other parents, and it’s good to have other people standing with you so you can’t be portrayed as some nutty outlier. I’ve found that health-conscious parents often suffer in silence, and you might be surprised at how many parents feel as you do once you broach the subject with them.  This can be done informally, through casual conversations, or you could raise the issue at a PTA or other school meeting to garner support that way.

2.  Try to locate your district’s wellness policy and see if it has any language regarding the use of food in the classroom.  The policy should be somewhere on your district’s website, often housed wherever there is information about your SHAC (that stands for School (or Student) Health Advisory Council (or Committee)).  It’s likely the topic is not addressed, but if it is, then it may be persuasive to show your principal that his/her school is not in compliance with stated district policy.

3.  It is always much better if you can marshal facts in support of your position.  So rather than making vague complaints about “unhealthy” food, a standard which is open to broad interpretation, it’s much more persuasive to be able to say, “On such-and-such day, the children were given such-and-such sugary foods as a classroom manipulative, with each child likely consuming X  teaspoons of sugar during the lesson.  However, the American Heart Association recommends no more than about 3-4 tsps of sugar (130-170 calories) in a young child’s day, which is far less than the amount consumed in the classroom that day.  And the candy eaten at school was likely not the only source of sugar in most students’ diets that day.”  That sort of thing.

4.  There are lots of resources on the Internet to help you make your case to a principal, teacher or other parents.  Here’s a list from a recent TLT post:

KY Healthy Kids has a useful list of medical organizations which discourage the use of food rewards, a list which may carry weight with your child’s principal or teacher.  My own Food in the Classroom Manifesto lists ten important reasons why classrooms should be food-free.  (A clean, easily copied Word version — no fancy “parchment” background to gobble up your printer ink— can be downloaded here.)  The awesome Rudd ‘Roots Parents website, run by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, has loads of additional information and guidance for parents to draw upon, as does the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the many other sites in my list of parent resources to the right of this post.

To that list, I’d also add this PDF handout from the Spoonfed blog.

OK, TLT’ers, anything to add?

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 6,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Bettina Elias Siegel

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Casey May 7, 2013 at 10:11 am

Good advice and thanks for sharing the list of health organizations that recommend not using food as a rewards. Another route she may want to consider is addressing it with the school council for inclusion in the school wellness policy. I’ve had success with that route but have found changing the district policy is much more difficult. Even strong policy is not 100% effective, so I also give my children money when they choose to say no thank you to food rewards and junk food. Glad to see awareness about this issue is growing!

Reply

Stacy@School-Bites.com May 7, 2013 at 1:14 pm

I agree with all of Bettina’s advice! I am struggling with a similar situation and I’ve begun to think that limiting the number of parties–versus trying to regulate the kinds of foods served at parties–might be the best way to go. Even if the school or individual teacher has rules about classroom food, parents often ignore the rules (or perhaps aren’t aware of them? I’ve found that sometimes the “offenders” are families who moved to town after the start of the school year and didn’t get the “memo”). Like Allison, I’m concerned about the health of all kids, but becoming “room mom” is one way to help ensure a healthy classroom for your own child. Lastly, it might be worth approaching the principal and/or PTA with the idea of starting a wellness committee, if one doesn’t exist (or joining an existing one). Classroom food would be a perfect problem for a W.C. to tackle.

Reply

Nutri-Link Technologies May 7, 2013 at 2:53 pm

I was watching the movie the “Guilt Trip” this weekend with Barbara Streisand and Seth Rogan. She plays the mother in the movie and she’s always trying to feed him. One her scenes he asks her why she’s always trying to feed him, her reply: “Ah, food is love!”

That scene summed up in four words the view of food for many. We celebrate with special food, we commensurate with special food, all major life moments include some sort of dessert (birthday cake/wedding cake etc.) I think if the reward system can in some way be re trained or re taught, and bring awareness to it, especially with our children, we will be on the right track!

Nutri-Link Technologies
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Nutri-Link-Technologies/385554151526910?notif_t=fbpage_presence

Reply

Sheri May 8, 2013 at 5:07 am

I understand that some may be frustrated with food in the classroom, however we need to consider that for many, that food may be the only food they receive in a day. I am a mom and don’t agree with the junk food in the classroom either – my child has multiple food allergies, so I have spoken with our teachers about making the party sign-up sheets start off with a list of healthy options. I also educate about label reading and the dangers of processed ingredients.

But there is often other things to consider before you begin a campaign to stop ALL food in the classroom.

Before you begin a crowdsourcing campaign, I would dig deeper in your communities and find some answers (this may be difficult, but worth the trouble).

Did you know?:
Food Insecurity Facts (http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-facts/child-hunger-facts.aspx)

– 16.7 million children lived in food insecure households in 2011.[i]
– 20% or more of the child population in 36 states and D.C. lived in food insecure households in 2010. The District of Columbia (30.7%) and Oregon (29.0%) had the highest rates of children in households without consistent access to food.[ii]
– In 2010, the top five states with the highest rate of food insecure children under 18 are the District of Columbia, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, & Florida.[iii]
– In 2010, the top five states with the lowest rate of food insecure children under 18 are North Dakota, New Hampshire, Virginia, Minnesota, & Massachusetts. [iv]

There was a recent article that addresses the frustrations and push back that breakfast in the classroom is receiving (http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/05/06/teachers-battle-against-kids-free-breakfast-classroom?cmpid=apatt-fb).

If you would like to better understand the full scope of the issue, perhaps a family movie (https://www.facebook.com/aPlaceAtTheTableMovie/app_190322544333196)

Reply

Bettina Elias Siegel May 8, 2013 at 9:15 am

Sheri:

Thanks for all of this valuable information

You may be a new Lunch Tray reader, but childhood hunger is a cause close to my heart, and one about which I write often here on TLT (see the many links below). Indeed, just recently I was a “Food Blogger for Hunger” in association with A Place at the Table, the excellent documentary film you cite above.

Here in Houston, over 80% of our students rely on free or reduced price federal school meals and it was precisely that issue of economic dependency which led to my interest in school food reform in the first place — and to the inception of this blog back in 2010.  It was also the issue that motivated my successful campaign against “pink slime” in school food ground beef last year.  And childhood hunger is the reason why I’ve always been a supporter of breakfast-in-the-classroom programs even though they can be, as you note, quite controversial — as such a program was here in Houston ISD when it was first instituted.

But I think it’s very important to make a distinction between “food in the cafeteria” and “food in the classroom.” The former is federally regulated and, thanks to the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in late 2010, great strides have been made in the nutritional profile of school meals. While we still have a lot of work to do in terms of reducing schools’ reliance on highly processed foods, children dependent on the federal lunch and breakfast programs (as well as after-school snack and even school supper programs) can and do have access to nutritionally balanced meals each and every school day (and throughout the summer where summer meals are offered.) That access is critical in an age in which so many kids, as you note, live in food-insecure households.

Food in the classroom, however, is another story.  This food tends to fall into three categories: food brought in for classroom celebrations; the use of food by teachers as a teaching tool or manipulative; and food handed out by teachers or principals as a reward for good behavior or academic performance.

In the case of classroom parties, an excellent 2012 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, co-authored by Marion Nestle, found that the majority of items offered for class celebrations were “low-nutrient, energy-dense foods” such as cake, fruit punch, ice cream, Doritos, cheese puffs, and potato chips.  And while I know of no academic studies looking at the latter two categories of classroom food, in my experience (and in the reported experience of my readers), food used as a teaching tool and as a reward also almost always falls into the “junk food” category.

For example, I’ll never forget the day my daughter told me about an elementary school science lesson which replicated the circulatory system by using corn syrup for plasma, red hots for platelets and another candy — I think white Tic Tacs — for white blood cells. After mixing up this concoction for demonstration purposes, all the children were given a cup of it to eat.  Lovely.

Similarly, in prior TLT posts you can read all about how my daughter, now in middle school, was last year regularly handed 12 oz cans of Coke and full-sized packages of gummi bears for good performance in a language class, and how my son was given a jumbo sized Hershey bar for winning a school lottery. Those are just two instances of the many, many times in which my kids have been handed out junk food by a teacher as a reward.

Here’s my point:  I think we can all agree that even children beset by childhood hunger should not be consuming empty calories.  In fact, to the extent children are being fed junk food in the classroom, it’s likely they will then consume less of the nutritionally balanced, taxpayer-subsidized meal offered in the lunch room.  That’s not so critical for kids like mine, who can make up any nutritional gaps at home, but it’s quite detrimental for kids who don’t come from homes well-stocked with healthful food.

So given the almost uniformly poor nutritional quality of food in the classroom, I reject the notion that childhood hunger justifies its use.

That said, there certainly are instances of teachers in impoverished areas bringing nutritious food into their classrooms to feed hungry students, often paying for this food out of their own pocket. That’s entirely different, of course, though it still raises other concerns about classroom food, such as allergy issues.  Similarly, those offerings aren’t subject to any kind of oversight, so we’re relying on a particular teacher’s definition of “healthful food” – one with which we might not all agree.  I also believe that if hungry children have access to school breakfast, school lunch, and after-school snack (if not also supper, as we have here in Houston at some particularly impoverished schools), then even that sort of food in the classroom might not be necessary.

Let me know what you think about all this, and I hope other TLT readers will chime in as well on this important question.

[This comment also appears as a stand-alone TLT post.]

Reply

Victoria November 26, 2013 at 11:19 pm

I know I have seen somewhere a permission slip that the school had given out at the beginning of the school year that asked the parents whether or not it was ok for their child to be fed “extra” foods during the school year. I’ll see if I can find it……thinking it was in a Canada based school. I think this might be a decent way to start the ball. It will lead to children being left out which might just lead to more inclusionary policies that DON’T INVOLVE FOOD in the first place.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: