Health Through Stealth? “The School Wellness Ninja”

I’ve written a lot on this blog (and, really, I mean, a LOT — see the “Related Posts” below) about classroom birthday treats, soccer snacks and the many other ways in which kids are offered junk food by people other than their parents on a regular basis.  Each individual episode would be no big deal for most of us, but over time we parents start to see how all of that junk food adds up and the deluge can feel overwhelming.

Bucking this trend can sometimes be hard, though, and many parents have reported getting a surprising amount of push-back from fellow parents, or recalcitrant principals, teachers or soccer coaches, when they’ve asked to improve the snacks and treats offered to their kids.  (Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition coined the excellent term “Snactivists” for parents who try to take this issue on, especially in the context of kids’ sports leagues.)

Courtesy of Don't Panic Mom
Adorable ninja dude courtesy of Don’t Panic Mom

So I was interested in this recent post from Alli Howe, blogger at Don’t Panic Mom, who suggests that instead of trying to change the status quo through overt activism, parents should just quietly set a good example for others to follow.  She writes:

You can help change the health culture of your child’s school without drama or flashing lights. . . .

The ninja approach is very effective when it comes to school wellness.

Don’t talk about your fruit tray. Just bring it in. When other parents and teachers see fruit coming in – they will take notice.

Don’t trash talk birthday cupcakes. Just bring in dancing music and glowsticks. (I want to go to that party.)

Don’t talk about carrot sticks as a healthy snacking option. Just send those crunchy beauties to the classroom.

I agree with Alli completely, and also note that she doesn’t advocate using the ninja approach to the exclusion of more active agitating by advocates like herself.  But I do have to point out that the ninja approach doesn’t address one problem, which is the expectations of our own children.

In my experience, when a classroom or school or sports team has a longstanding tradition of serving junk food snacks or birthday treats, it can be very hard to convince one’s own children to go along with bucking this trend.  Particularly as kids get older, peer pressure can be intense and  being the one kid who’s celebrating his birthday with a fruit tray when every other kid brings in neon-frosted cupcakes can be very difficult indeed.

Who can forget the angst in my own house when my son asked (OK, begged) me to bring in donuts for his 11th birthday last year (see “Food Free Birthdays Can Be Hard — Even for the Manifesto Lady“)? He and I stressed and tussled over that issue for days, and while we came to a mutually agreeable solution (thank you, Marvel Avengers!), that solution cost more money than sugary treats would have, and raised the various other concerns discussed in that post and its comment section.

So I applaud Alli’s stealth approach and hope that all of you will join her ninja squad.  (Clan? Gang?  What do you call a passel of ninjas, anyway?)  But I also feel (and, again, Alli makes this point, too), that we still need parent “activists” who are willing to get a little noisy with decision makers, as well as the sneaky ninjas.  In other words, we need to change the food culture from the top down, as well as from the bottom up.

What do you think, TLTers?  Let me know in a comment below.

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  1. says

    I love the Ninja idea and love the idea of modeling healthier behaviors. Yet I believe that policies need to be put in place to change the food environment for our kids. In my opinion, it’s not enough for a few moms to bring in fruit for birthdays. It’s much more effective when the teacher asks ALL parents to bring in fruit (or not bring in food at all). Then the kids get a consistent message. When I first brought apples to soccer, the kids were psyched…until they saw the dad nearby who brought chips for them too. They dropped their apples and ran for the chips. We can’t expect our kids to turn down frosted cupcakes and Fruit Roll-Ups; we need to change their day-to-day food environment so the healthy choice is the default, so it’s the easy and expected one to make. I think that takes more than modeling.

  2. says

    Stacy from School Bites just posted about a healthy classroom celebration that was undermined: “I couldn’t resist. You kids need some sugar!” blared the mom who waltzed in with the sug­ary treats with­out con­sult­ing any­one first. I’ll take a ninja over an outright underminer but agree with Sally that it takes more than modeling. More noisy activists, please!

  3. says

    Thanks for excellent thoughts, Bettina! There is room for everyone in the school health movement. I wanted to write about different ways for parents to feel involved – especially the parents who don’t feel comfortable being outspoken. At the end of the day, the best written policy is still just a piece of paper (or online PDF). I’m always surprised about how many schools have policies in place, but aren’t followed. I attended a focus group with plenty of mothers who were fiercely advocating for healthy classrooms. But my ears perked up when a quiet mom said, “I’m just starting to transition to healthier living at home. What would help me the most is if just one mom said she wasn’t bringing in cupcakes. Then I would feel like it was okay for me to do it, too.” I thought about it for weeks afterward about how people like me (loud and opinionated) can turn off moms who aren’t quite ready for kale smoothies. Modeling is so important in health education. For health to stick – we need to encourage noisy activists AND quiet ones. Thanks Casey, Sally, and Bettina for helping me learn about how I can be a leader in my home and community.

  4. says

    I LOVE Alli’s approach of encouraging the quiet activists. Because there are a LOT Of them out there. I can’t tell you how many moms at my kids’ school are passionate about healthy food but just don’t want to make waves. The simple act of bucking the trend and bring in a platter of fruit kabobs is a great step for those who feel uncomfortable speaking up. I agree with you, Sally and Casey: Noisy activists are essential. And policies, too! Here’s to making some noise!!

  5. Bettina Elias Siegel says

    Alli: I hope it was clear from this post that (a) I totally support the ninja approach and (b) that you’re not recommending it to the exclusion of other, more overt activism.

    The truth is, for all my writing about this issue here, I find it very hard to be “noisy” one-on-one with decision-makers like teachers and principals. (Apparently, I’m much more comfortable with taking on whole industries via online petitions – LOL.)

    So I *totally* empathize with and want to support the quieter parents among us who are unhappy with the food status quo. And that’s why I loved your post! :-)

  6. says

    After reading some of Alli’s other work, I can see that she does advocate for “noisy change” (I like that phrase!) too. And yes, I totally agree that we need both. Not everyone is comfortable speaking up. When I read this post in isolation, it seemed to say that big change can happen if everyone just models those healthy behaviors instead of rocking the boat. Too often I hear people respond to a request for healthier snacks with “If you want your kid to eat fruit, bring fruit. But I’m bringing cupcakes”. And that puts parents in a terrible position of having to police their kids at every event or just throw up their hands. So in summary, yes to noisy advocates and stealthy health ninjas working together, absolutely!

    • says

      Thanks for the clarification and that’s how I interpreted it originally too. It’s very uncomfortable to speak up for change, especially in a face to face social situation like at your child’s school. I make myself do it because being a stealth ninja is not enough to make it happen. I hope others will push themselves to be uncomfortable for the sake of healthier kids.

  7. says

    Great post! I think that both methods can have a very positive impact. I also agree that the entire norm of sweet treats really does need to change. Kids aren’t born expecting sweet treats at every party, they learn it. If the culture would change by the time my 2 year old gets to school (love the music and glow sticks), she wouldn’t even know the difference. Keep fighting the good fight!

  8. says

    I love the Ninja approach but agree that parents need to work together to make sure schools implement healthier policies re: what kids eat and how they move. A reminder to everyone: If your school participates in the National School Lunch Program, it’s required by law to have a Wellness Policy in place. Find out who is on the wellness committee, read through your school’s existing policy (the law went into place in 2006 and the policy has to be re-written every few years), and find out if your school system is following the policy. In my community, we created a policy that requires classrooms to offer non-food parties and celebrations (in part b/c of food allergies), recess can NOT be taken away as a punishment, and our elementary schools can’t sell a la carte “snack” items at lunch unless they meet certain criteria. It may be as simple as meeting w/ your superintendent and pointing out that certain policies are not being met. You never know! In the meantime, if you’re trying to get healthier snacks on the playing fields, another strategy is to write a Letter to the Editor of your local paper pointing out why fruit & water make more sense than junk food and sugary sports drinks. I have a link on my site if you want to see my sample later …
    As always, thanks for another great post!


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