Another guest post! Today, I’m handing the blogging reins over to Lindsey Parsons, Executive Director of Real Food for Kids – Montgomery, a school food advocacy group in Montgomery County, Maryland.
In it, Parsons asks an important question: since the sale of junk food to kids is always profitable, how do we get schools and parent groups to lower their financial expectations in order to protect children’s health?
We Need to Reset the Baseline
by Lindsey Parsons, EdD
Recently I succeeded in changing a years-long practice of selling candy to children at a movie night fundraiser at my son’s school with healthier options like Pirate’s Booty, Veggie Straws, dye-free cheddar ducks and fig bars. The deal I made with the fundraising committee chair was that if healthier options didn’t raise as much money as candy, we would bring back candy for subsequent fundraisers. I was so proud sitting at that concessions table with the healthier options, even as a couple kids came up and asked, “Aren’t you going to sell candy?” I’d just reply “We’re trying to keep you guys healthy.” It felt good. Sales seemed brisk, with many kids coming back for a second or even third snack, finding something they were happy to substitute for candy.
But sadly, when the sales numbers came back substantially lower (candy usually made $300; our net profits were only $127), I was told the experiment had to end and we had to bring back in the candy. As you can imagine, I was quite disappointed. Was it fair that I had to start from a baseline of $300 and try to achieve that? Someone, at some point in the past, decided that they were happy to sell out our kids’ health in order to raise money. So now the baseline I have to start from is that poor decision.
It is estimated that obesity-related illness in the U.S. costs us $190.2 billion or nearly 21% of annual medical spending, and Americans now consume 500 more calories a day than they did in the 1970s, before this crisis began.
Something has to give somewhere. Food companies have to accept lower profits, fundraisers have to expect lower returns or look at different models, and we have to stop stuffing our kids full of extra calories that are slowing making them sick and creating unhealthy eating habits that may plague them for life. And it has to begin somewhere. It is unreasonable to use the current state of our food culture as the baseline when it is a national catastrophe that’s killing us. We need to reset the baseline.
It’s the same situation in school food. At some point in the past, someone decided to start selling a la carte (snack) items in school cafeterias. Now it makes billions of dollars for school food services nationwide with very few exceptions, helping fund their underfunded meal programs.
While better standards have come into effect for what can be sold, it still is a huge source of excess calories and sugar, and creates great inequity in the cafeteria. Wealthier kids can go through the line and come out with pizza, ice cream, chips and cookies (and sadly call that a meal), while kids eligible for Free and Reduced-priced Meals (FARMs) can only get a traditional meal and envy those kids who can afford a la carte items (even as their health benefits from not being able to afford those items). So it is still obvious who is and isn’t getting a free lunch. We need to reset the baseline. As Bertrand Weber, Director of Culinary and Wellness Services for the Minneapolis Public Schools (where they no longer serve a la carte foods) put it: “I’m not a convenience store; I’m here to serve meals to kids. The purpose of the national school lunch program is to serve the best quality breakfast and lunch.” He was able to reset the baseline because he was in a position of power to do it.
Unfortunately, I’m not in position of power to do it for movie night. Why not? Because I was too busy to take on the fundraising chair role and I didn’t plan ahead to recruit someone with more time who shared my perspective. It’s time to think ahead and seize the reins of power that can reset the baseline, but that requires people who will put children’s health first to take those reins. Where are the reins? School food service. We need a new generation of school food service leaders who will put health first. Booster clubs. We need booster club presidents and fundraising chairs who will put health first. PTAs. We need a new generation of PTA leaders and fundraising chairs who will put health first.
If you care about kids’ health, it’s time to step up for these not so glamorous jobs and help reset the baseline.
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I have my own thoughts about Parsons’s story, but since she’s the TLT blogger today, I’ll be a good reader and leave them in a comment below. 🙂 I hope you’ll join the conversation, too!
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