Yesterday a Lunch Tray reader wrote to me seeking advice about improving the snacks in her child’s public pre-school, snacks which sometimes include items like highly processed Uncrustables and chocolate milk. This reader was also disturbed that some classroom projects, like cookie-making, involved a lot of sugar. She ended her email to me with this:
I want it all: higher standards with food, a good relationship with the teacher, and for my son to not be an “exception” with food at school. I don’t want him to have to sit out because I want the standards to be high for every kid in the school. I am writing to find some solid advice on how to survive food transitions when working with slow school systems.
After sending my reply to her this morning I thought I might share it here, too, so TLT’ers can add their own advice and relay their own experiences. Let’s crowd-source this one! :-)
I’m not posting the reader’s original email to protect her anonymity, but here’s my reply. I dashed this off at 5:30am so forgive me if it’s a little less coherent than a regular TLT blog post:
Thanks for getting in touch.
Let me say up front that you’re asking the million dollar question here, and one to which even I don’t have all the answers. While I feel I’ve made a lot of strides nationally on The Lunch Tray by bringing these issues to the fore and assisting readers around the country at their children’s schools, at my own son’s elementary school my principal has declined to make any modifications to practices like birthday cupcakes in the classroom. And though she has cracked down on candy rewards given out by teachers, she also just instituted a program where kids get coupons for free shakes if their class has a high rate of homework compliance.
I will say, however, that I’ve made the classic mistake — the very same thing I advise my readers against – of going it alone with the principal. I’ve frankly been so busy with TLT and with my district-level activities that I just haven’t taken the time to form a coalition in my school. As you said in your email, “I know transitions require buy in from someone besides me.” That’s exactly right.
So, first off . . . It sounds like you’re new at the school but is it possible to reach out to other parents to see if they feel the same way? E.g., can you strike up conversations in the hall or at pick-up in which you (tactfully) express dissatisfaction with the snacks to see if you get any support? Or, if the school has a PTA type group, that might be another place to find allies.
Since your preschool is public, you might also want to find your district’s wellness policy (this should be on the district’s website but if you can’t find it, call and ask) to see if there’s any language there which might support your goals. It’s unlikely but possible that there will be language which encourages your district’s schools to make snacks healthful, and though this policy has no real “teeth,” it does tend to get a principal’s attention to say that he/she is “in violation of district policy.”
Once you have even a few parents on your side, I think it’s then much easier to go to the principal and discuss the issue. But if you can come armed with more than just your own personal views that the food is subpar, that’s also helpful. I’ve been very impressed with a website called Rudd ‘Roots Parents, created by the Yale Rudd Center on Food Policy & Obesity. There you’ll find all kinds of fact sheets and studies which can be marshaled in support of your arguments, such as a sheet which shows how even small amounts of “harmless” sugar in a child’s day can easily add up to far more than the recommended amount of daily sugar consumption. Facts like that can make a teacher re-think projects like the cookie-making you mentioned. The more objective evidence you have on your side, the less you will be perceived as either a “food Nazi” or elitist food snob, and more as what you are — a reasonable, concerned parent.
Before proceeding, you might also want to find out to what degree the classroom snacks are controlled by the principal versus the district. Here in Houston, schools are sent their food by a huge central kitchen and principals have very little autonomy in terms of what is sent. If that’s the case, then all of the above might be better directed at your district’s Food Services Director (or “Student Nutrition Director” — the title may vary) than the principal.
Finally, I do think that it’s important to be tactful, pleasant and patient when you approach either the principal or the Food Services Director. Sometimes the issue is cost (processed foods are cheaper than whole, fresh foods, and require less labor and refrigeration). Sometimes it’s ignorance. Rarely is the issue pure laziness or someone not caring about kids.
I can’t promise results, but I hope this advice helps. Good luck!
So, TLT’ers, have I said anything with which you disagree? Do you have anything to add? Share your thoughts in a comment below.
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