I once attended a conference for food advocates from all over the country and one of the break-out sessions was specifically for those of us working in politically conservative states. The joke was that wine and sympathetic hugs would be on offer as we shared our sob stories with each other.
That experience reminded me of a TLT reader, whom I’ll call Ellen, who wrote to me a few months ago seeking my help. I actually shared a bit of Ellen’s story in my new (free!) 40-page ebook, The Lunch Tray’s Guide to Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom. I wrote:
While parents should feel free to advocate for the healthiest classroom environment possible, there may come a point when you hit the limits of what your particular community will accept. Here’s what I mean:
You might live in a health-conscious, progressive city and/or your children might attend a school (public or private) in which the parent community is well educated about nutrition — or at least open to nutrition education. Or you might be like one Lunch Tray reader who recently wrote to me in despair. In the small, rural area in which she lives, the school is awash in junk food for every occasion, from parties to fundraisers. Overweight children in her community are generally looked upon as “healthier” than children of normal weight (who are called “pencil-necked” or “beanpole”), and a fellow PTA member once literally told her, “We don’t care about nutrition!”
If you live in the former environment, asking fellow parents to bring in only organic, locally-grown fruits and vegetables for birthdays might be met with excited enthusiasm. In the latter environment, it might get you run out of town by an angry mob.
When I corresponded with Ellen I promised to share her story on the blog to solicit advice from other readers, and I’m doing that belatedly today. Here are the other pieces to her story:
Fifty percent of the kids in her rural district are on free or reduced price lunch. At first she was told outright that the district had no wellness policy, but she was intrepid in trying to locate it:
After speaking with the Superintendent’s office twice, several elementary teachers (including P.E. teacher), and the District School Nurse, I called the Students Services Director in the Superintendent’s office- they put me on speakerphone to have me explain to them what a wellness plan is. Then said they’d look around and get back with me. Sure enough, they found one! Or what they’re calling one. I now have a hard copy in my possession.
The wellness policy, like most policies written when they were first mandated back in 2004, is quite weak (more on that in my ebook) and the district isn’t even complying with its own low standards. For example, the policy encourages teachers to solicit healthy food for classroom use, yet on her own child’s class supply list parents were asked to bring “a bag of candy” for use as rewards. She also says preschoolers in the district are given snacks like “brownies, cupcakes, chocolate pudding and pop tarts.”
Ellen has spoken about this a PTO meeting (where she was told, “We don’t care about nutrition!”), she has attended a board meeting to learn more about her district’s policies, and she has taken a school tour with her principal to discuss these issues. Here’s how the talk with the principal went:
When I brought up the idea of wellness, nutrition and obesity, he scoffed and said he didn’t believe in BMI, and said, “Look at Shaquille O’Neil!”. . . . He told me that they don’t really have many celebrations anyway- He said “Just Christmas parties and Valentines, not Easter… Oh except the Kindergarteners and 1st grade- they go to the Nursing Home for an Egg Hunt.” I just nodded and kept to myself the other celebrations that I know are occurring- Halloween parties in each classroom from 1:30-2:30 today (listed on the website), Veterans Day Breakfast (mentioned at the PTO meeting, planning who will supply the donuts), Donuts with dads, Muffins with Moms (mentioned at the PTO meeting).
Ellen and I have talked about the importance of finding fellow parents who can stand with her in this effort, but she writes:
I would like to try to change my own school district, and have looked for allies, but have come up with no one. Not one person who is willing to help or even feels there’s a problem.
She and I have talked about other things she can do, including seeking support outside the school environment from health professionals and community leaders. We also talked about how the new USDA wellness policy rules will require schools to be more proactive about student health, including having to report on their progress each year in meeting specific health-related goals. All of that said, though, I fully recognize that sometimes a school or district is just so mired in the junk food Stone Age, even these sorts of external pressures won’t do much good.
But before Ellen throws up her hands in defeat or moves her kids to another district (something she’s considering), I told her I’d share her story here. Any additional advice, TLTers? Please share your thoughts in a comment below or on TLT’s Facebook page.
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