Houston Chronicle Slams Sid Miller — and Why We All Have a “Sid Miller Problem”

Believe me, I'm getting as sick of this photo as you are.  (Photo credit:  Texas Tribune, by Marjorie Kamys Cotera)
Believe me, I’m getting as sick of this photo as you are. (Photo credit: Texas Tribune, by Marjorie Kamys Cotera)

I know it seems lately like The Lunch Tray is turning into “The Sid Miller Chronicles” but allow me just one more post (for now) on Texas’s new Agriculture Commissioner and his wrong-headed school nutrition policies.

For those of you just tuning in, this is the guy who, under the banner of “restoring local control” to school districts, recently lifted a ban on deep-fat fryers in our schools, unnecessarily “liberated” our birthday cupcakes, and axed our longstanding, common sense competitive food policies.

First, I want to applaud the Houston Chronicle for coming out strong against Miller in an op-ed appearing in today’s paper, written by its editorial board.  Here’s an excerpt:

. . . our youths’ waistbands are already expanding at a fast clip. They don’t need any encouragement from our political leaders to disregard healthful nutrition.

In recent decades, obesity has tripled in children and quadrupled among adolescents in the U.S. In Texas, 16 percent of high school students were obese in 2013, compared to only 14 percent in 2005, according to theU.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among minority communities, obesity rates are even higher.

Yet for Miller, ending the ban is not about French fries or presumably health and nutrition; it’s about individual responsibility, freedom and liberty. Grand words for a policy that essentially champions the higher health-care costs associated with obesity.

You can read the full 0p-ed here.

Second, I want to share a new post from my colleague and fellow Texan Dan Taber, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health who specializes in childhood obesity policy research.  In the post, Taber takes an important, wider-lens view of the Sid Miller problem — namely, the general disdain for science evinced these days by so many governmental officials and self-interested parties.  Disregarding sound nutritional science has real and troubling implications for all of us, regardless of what state we live in, in that it may weaken the proposed Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) and undercut our federal school food nutritional standards.  Taber explains more fully in his post.

And, by the way, if you’d like to protest attempts to weaken the DGA, you can sign this petition from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and if you’d like to protest attempts to weaken school food standards, you can sign this one, also from CSPI.

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It’s Official: Texas Lifts Ban on Deep Fat Fryers in Schools

Photo credit:  Texas Tribune, by Marjorie Kamys Cotera
Photo credit: Texas Tribune, by Marjorie Kamys Cotera

Tucked within an Orwellian press release touting its efforts to “combat child obesity,” the Texas Department of Agriculture has made official its lifting of a decade-old ban on deep fat fryers in Texas schools, as well as rolling back other common sense school nutrition measures.

This action was taken despite the fact that our state ranks fifth in the nation for obesity among high school students, and despite public comments reportedly opposing the TDA’s plan by an astounding margin of 105 to 8.  Among those arguing against the proposal were respected organizations like the American Heart Association, the Texas PTA, the Partnership for Healthy Texas and the Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  (My own open letter to TDA opposing the plan — “Chicken-Fried Politics” — may be found here and my January op-ed in the Houston Chronicle may be found here.)

According to San Antonio’s My SA website, the eight comments in favor of the plan included those from:

Kona Ice, which sells sugary shaved ice drinks; World’s Finest Chocolate, a small number of school districts, and a company called TiFry that sells “a device that not only assists with reducing cooking oil consumption but will reduce calories in fried foods.” There was also this e-mail from a first grade teacher in Tyler, who wanted to “applaud” Miller for lifting the ban on deep fryers and sodas in public schools. “I could get my students to learn a lot of things just by promising them a Starburst or peppermint,” she wrote. “Thank you for taking a stand. School food is disgusting!”

Unfortunately, there’s nothing remotely surprising about this depressing outcome.

When our new Agriculture Commissioner, Sid Miller, chose as his very first act in office a bogus “lifting” of a non-existent ban on birthday cupcakes in Texas schools, parents and health advocates around the state were understandably alarmed. And when Mr. Miller quickly parlayed that empty publicity stunt into an appearance on national Fox News, during which he made one gross misrepresentation after another but was nonetheless hailed as a national hero for restoring “local control” to districts, we all saw the handwriting on the wall.

In addition to rolling back the ban on deep-fat fryers, Miller has also lifted a decade-old ban on the sale of diet soda and caffeinated drinks to high schoolers, increased our allowed junk-food fundraising days from zero to six, and removed our common sense “time and place” restrictions on the sale of competitive foods.  The latter change is in many ways the most troubling, because it means kids eating the nutritionally-balanced school meal (or their home-packed lunch) will now be tempted to ditch it in favor of packaged snacks sold right in the cafeteria during the lunch hour.  And let’s remember: even the nutritionally improved “Smart Snacks” can include subpar items like these, which are hardly a substitute for a nutritious meal.

The Michael and Susan Dell Center has created a handy chart (click to enlarge) which graphically depicts the backward direction in which the state of Texas is moving, all thanks to Mr. Miller:

MSD chart

Whether Texas schools will become awash in deep-fried food and other junk food remains to be seen.  The nutrition standards of the National School Lunch Program and the Smart Snacks in School rules still apply in our state, of course, and it could be quite hard to serve fried foods while also complying with those rules’ stringent fat limits.  Moreover, a failure to comply with the federal standards could be noticed in a state audit, resulting in the imposition of fines on the school district.

But wait a minute.  Who’s charged with vigorously enforcing all those federal rules here in Texas?

Yup.  That would be Sid “Local Control” Miller.

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A New Initiative to Get Junk Food Out of Classrooms

Credit:  School Bites
Credit: School Bites

I’ve written a lot over the years (really, A LOT – see the Related Links below) about junk food in school classrooms, whether distributed by teachers as rewards for good behavior and academic performance or served as part of birthday or classroom celebrations.

It’s important to note that these practices are not addressed by the new federal Smart Snacks in School rules because the sort of junk food we’re talking about here is merely offered to kids, not sold, and therefore it isn’t considered “competitive food” under these new rules.

To help improve the classroom food environment, I’ve shared my own TLT Food in the Classroom Manifesto, which lists ten reasons why I think classrooms should be junk-food-free (and, ideally, food-free), I’ve solicited a huge number of reader ideas for food-free birthday celebrations (Real Mom Nutrition has a good list here, too), and I’ve also referred you to a useful handout for teachers created by Spoonfed.

To that growing list of resources I’m glad to add an exciting new Healthy Classrooms Initiative created by School Bites blogger Stacy Whitman, along with a registered dietitian.  What’s great about Stacy’s effort is that it’s a complete program, providing teachers with educational presentations by clinical dietitians, Healthy Classrooms signage, a pledge to sign, information for parents and more.  You can read all the details and access the program’s materials for possible use in your own school here. Bravo, Stacy!

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Food In the Classroom: Teachers Speak Out

The Manifesto! Click to enlarge it - copy and share it if you like.

Yesterday’s manifesto against food in the classroom, which I pounded out at my keyboard in a fit of complete frustration and anger, has clearly resonated with a lot of people.  With three exceptions (two of which I couldn’t print because they contained such foul language), comments posted here and on Twitter and Facebook have uniformly been in favor of getting food rewards and birthday treats out of our schools.

And many readers, like one named LA, wrote in to say, “Thank you for this. I thought I was one of the few parents who felt this way.”

Clearly not.

The other notable development is that I’m starting to hear from teachers.  Just as when I write about school food reform, I welcome comments and guest posts from school food service workers sharing their unique perspective, it’s been illuminating to hear from educators about this issue.  Here’s a sampling.

From Tina B:

I am a teacher, and while I admit I made the mistake of food rewards early in my career, I learned many years ago to stop the practice. I now have a treasure box filled with party favor trinkets items and a huge stash of stickers that I happily use instead. . . .

As for Halloween and Valentine parties, I allow sweets to be brought into the class. Candy treats are passed out at the end of the day (roughly the last 40 minutes or so) and I encourage the children to take most of their treats home. Because I teach in a poor district there usually isn’t that much to pass out anyway.

But the birthday celebrations are a completely different story!!!  . . . .

In recent years I have sent home letters to parents asking that birthdays be sweet free or to send in fruit or veggies, but since other teachers don’t have this class policy I really can’t enforce my requests. Parents of multi aged children (meaning kids in multiple grade levels and classrooms) can never remember which teacher has this policy, or just tune it out all together. Then there are the parents that have the attitude no one is going to tell me what to do when it comes to my kid. Parents will send in cupcakes for all, Capri Sun or the plastic bottles of colored who knows what, as well as bags of chips and bags of candy.

I have had parents go to the principal to complain about me because I absolutely refused a Costco sized sheet cake and two liters of Coke. The parent brought no plates or serving utensils for me, and I have learned from experience that to carve up a sheet cake into 28 peices and pour 28 cups of soda takes almost 45 minutes from start to finish and then the clean up process as well.

I physically cringe when I see all this junk arrive. First, the children see this bounty arrive and then proceed to ask about it all day long. “When are we going to eat cake?” becomes the mantra for the entire day. I’ll be in the middle of a math lessen and a child will raise their hand to ask “is it time for cake?”! Because I do not want to have 28 sugar crazed children in my room I save this stuff for literally the last 20 minutes of the day.

Another reason why I cringe when it arrives is because I myself have a sweet tooth and even when I stand there and tell myself that I will not eat that, I will not eat that, under no circumstances am i going to eat that…I almost always crack and eat the cake. :( I have learned for myself that the best way for me to eat healthy is the total removal of all temptation. Now I am a 40 year old woman and have a hard time refusing the cake, so really, what are the odds of a child saying no? We can teach our children to eat healthy so they have healthy bodies and minds, but cake is yummy, and temptation combined with seeing all the other kids eating will result in our kids cracking every time. . . .

From a reader who goes by “c:”

When teachers try to say no to parents with cupcakes, we get labeled as the mean teachers. It’s tough to stand up to parents on this issue and risk a grudge when we need those parents to work as partners with us to help their children succeed academically. Parents are often looking for something to dislike us for, and saying, “No, I won’t let you serve cupcakes to the class for your child’s birthday, ” is often very hard to say when you know you also need to say, “Mrs. Smith, I would like to have your child assessed for speech.” Just a different perspective to keep in mind.

c also added in another comment:

As a teacher who insists the food in my class is rarely present, healthy, and safe for everyone, I applaud this article. For every 1 parent who is sick of the unhealthy foods, there are 5 who complain when the teacher stops serving it. It’s amazing how many complaints I have fielded from parents who think it’s mean of me to have a party of fruits and veggies with no cookies, cupcakes, or other foods that will send my food allergic kids into anaphylaxis or diabetic kids into shock. Parents think kids NEED sugar to have a fun class party. I have had parents who, even after they have been told no, will still show up without permission with 30 cupcakes and plop them in my arms with a satisfied look on their face, thinking that now that the kids have seen them, I have to serve them. This debate has two sides to it – please remember that there are plenty of teachers who are really extremely tired of having 30 kids hopped up on sugar in their classrooms and parents demanding that it happen on a regular basis.

Parental push back, especially when it comes to birthday treats*, is a real issue.  Here in Texas, our legislature actually passed a “safe cupcake amendment” to protect parents’ rights to bring in sweets for their kids’ birthdays.  And I personally know one parent who was vilified at her children’s school when she dared question the birthday treat practice.  So my sympathy is with well-meaning teachers on the receiving end of some intense parental anger when they try to curb classroom sweets.  (By the way, for an interesting examination of why parents get so riled up over this issue, be sure to check out this post on Real Mom Nutrition (“For The Love of Cupcakes“) and the article she discusses there: “Food Nazis Invade First Grade.”)

But I want to end on a positive note.  Two days before I published my manifesto, a comment happened to come in on a much older Lunch Tray post (“Sarah Palin and Birthday Treats Redux“) about Sarah Palin’s 2010 publicity stunt of bringing sugar cookies to a Pennsylvania school to protest proposed “Nanny state” school nutrition guidelines.  That post turned into a distillation of my many arguments against in-class treats, and a reader named Annemarie, a teacher, had this to say:

Wow. so, I’m having a sort of mini food revolution myself, personally, and this blog comes at such a great time. I’m absolutely a foodie, and one of the hardest parts of trying to eat more healthily is fitting my foodie lifestyle into healthy eating. More importantly, I’m a mother now, to a beautiful almost-two year old, and eating right has suddenly become so much more important. People are encouraging my attempt at losing the ton of weight I want to lose, and it’s hard to explain to them that this isn’t about losing weight so much as its about changing my entire lifestyle when it comes to eating and feeding my family.

The reason I’m responding to this, though, is that i have a confession to make. I am a teacher of sixth graders, and I must say that in my seven years of teaching it never occurred to me to think past the reception of the treat. What I mean is I knew treats made my students happy. I bring treats in about five times a year, if that, although the clemtines I give them for PSSA testing some don’t consider a treat. We have a pizza party to celebrate reading Olympics, and every time we have a fundraising competition the winning team gets an ice cream party (that I have nothing to do with!). It never occurred to me the violation I was committing, and I truly mean that. My job is to educate, and yes, providing treats here and there is great. Bt reading these comments and this article has completely changed the way I’m viewing my treat-giving! It never occur to me that i Might have students who have parents desperately trying to save them by teaching them proper nutrition, and it never occurred to me that providing treats might interfere with that.

I’m a little confused by some comments – no one is entitled to cupcakes, and I think, honestly, the idea of getting creative with treats for the classroom and using non-food rewards is so important. I can’t wait to try and think of something clever for our next reward!

If that doesn’t make you feel hopeful . . . .

 

* A while back, I was stressing about celebrating my own child’s birthday in the classroom and TLT readers came up with many fantastic, food-free ideas:  “A Happy Ending to the Classroom Birthday Treat Dilemma.”

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 3,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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In-Class Birthday Treats: A Reader Says My Kids Just Need The “Backbone” To Resist

Sometimes I get a reader comment which merits a full post in response.  Such is the case with two comments (and later, a third) submitted by reader “bw1″ to last week’s cupcake post, “A Passionate Dad Defends the In-Class Birthday Treat, and I Respond.”

In essence, bw1 feels it’s my job to instill in my children the willpower to resist classroom treats rather than asking the school to remove those treats.   And bw1 is not the first reader to make this argument.  Right after I started this blog, a “libertarian” mom wrote in response to my post “Outing Myself” (wherein I lamented my hypocrisy for hating the in-class birthday treat but bringing them nonetheless):

Personally, I aim to be the kind of mother who speaks with authority and raises children who listen. Asking my legislators to assist me, because I don’t want to be the “mean” parent, seems terribly weak.

Before I address the “backbone” argument, let me first reprint the first two of bw1’s comments here. (For clarity, where bw1 is quoting text written by me, I use italics):

But my question to him is, is there a legitimate reason why some parents no longer want their kids eating a cupcake at school every time a classmate has a birthday…. ?”

Interesting question, but completely irrelevant. If you don’t want your kid eating those cupcakes, then it’s YOUR JOB as a parent to instill that in your kid. It’s not the rest of the world’s job to eliminate opportunities for your kid to sin against your wishes.

Let’s look at the “no longer” part, as if the concerns of some new-age anti-sugar parents represent some new an novel issue never see before, which can’t possibly be addressed within the context of liberty known in past generations. I have news for you, it’s nothing new. I spent my entire K-12 career knowing that, during Lent, I was not to eat meat on Fridays, and although numerous opportunities presented themselves at school, from lunch trading to cafeteria offerings, etc. my parents managed to somehow teach me priorities such that I abstained. Similarly, my Jewish classmates never availed themselves of all the traife that was available.

What astounds me is the conceit with which you assume the rest of society must be constrained to protect your children from any temptation to deviate from your dietary beliefs. What makes you think the public schools should serve as your personal food inquisition?

Then bw1 checked out my earlier post, “The Birthday Cupcake Debate Heats Up,”  and added this comment:

Just took a look at one of the other posts that you said addressed these concerns, and your logic there wasn’t any more impressive:

“To me, cupcakes in school are a lot like second-hand smoke.”

Because abstaining from an available cupcake is as deadly as not breathing, right?

But why should I be put in the position of asking that of a seven year old, glassy-eyed with envy as 24 of his peers sit around him, licking cupcake frosting off their fingers?”

BECAUSE:

1.- as you approvingly quoted, “. . . if you go with the flow in America today, you will end up overweight or obese.” Thus, the ONLY HOPE your child has for a non-obese life is learning to resist peer pressure and that it is possible to survive being the odd man out.
2.- Just saying no to the cupcake lays the groundwork for just saying no to the cigarette, and later the joint, that your child WILL be offered at some point in his school career.
3.- maybe you might want your kid to develop some character and backbone to do what’s right.
4.-in 8 years or so, you’re going to want your kid to be able to resist something FAR more tempting than a cupcake, which many of his peers are enjoying, so that you don’t end up a premature grandmother.

Newsflash – a sizable number of the world’s religions involve dietary restrictions that fall outside the secular American mainstream. MILLIONS of parents whose faith placed them in the position of not just asking, but demanding under pain of grounding or even corporal punishment, that their grade school children abstain from what others are enjoying, have still raised well adjusted kids who’ve gone on to be productive, contributing members of society.

Similarly, this is nothing more than you wanting your kid to conform to your beliefs. Sorry, but that’s no more society’s job than teaching them to say a rosary.

Here’s my response to bw1 and other readers who share the same views:

Thanks for your comments on these posts.  Without oversimplifying, I think I can fairly boil down both comments to two key ideas:

  • It’s my job — and mine alone — to teach my child to resist the cupcake, and it’s “not the rest of the world’s job to eliminate opportunities [my] kid to sin* against [my] wishes.”
  • It’s ridiculous for me to compare a cupcake to second-hand smoke; only “some new-age anti-sugar parent” could possibly care about an innocuous cupcake.

Assuming that’s a fair recap, let’s take each point in turn.

Don’t Remove Temptation – Instill Backbone

I wholeheartedly agree that it’s my job as a parent to instill in my child whatever values he’ll need to resist the many temptations life will throw in his path. You mention several of these as examples: junk food, cigarettes, drugs/alcohol and unprotected sex.

However, it’s quite notable that with respect to every one of the public health concerns you hold up as examples, schools are already serving as active partners to assist parents in their efforts.  Almost every public school district in America, through its health/hygiene curriculum, tries to inculcate students with anti-smoking and anti-drug/alcohol messages, offers a modicum of nutrition education, provides mandatory physical education and promotes either abstinence alone or provides sex education with an underlying abstinence message.

That this health education is taking place at all points up the rather obvious fact that the school environment is not the equivalent of the world at large.  Outside the school walls, the world is very much a free-for-all and children will certainly need plenty of “backbone” to navigate it safely.  But inside the schoolhouse, society quite deliberately picks and chooses which messages it wishes to convey to its children and the values it hopes to instill.

Were that not the case, following your manner of thinking to its (admittedly absurd but perfectly logical) extreme, what would be wrong with teachers handing out cigarettes, drugs, pornography, weapons etc. in the classroom and trusting that each parent had done a good enough job at home to teach children to resist?  What would be wrong with a teacher indoctrinating children to commit acts of terror, if parents had instilled sufficient “backbone” in their children to reject those messages?

We are concerned about what happens in the classroom because our children are quite literally captive to all that takes place there for the majority of their waking hours during the most formative years of their lives.  We care very much about what is taught, and about who is teaching it, and, yes, even what food is made available there, because we know that young children, despite all the best efforts expended at home, are inherently impressionable and do not always have the “backbone” to act as we hope in the face of powerful teacher influence, peer pressure and primitive bodily urges (like the desire to eat a cupcake).

Now, as already noted, it’s patently absurd to compare offering a child a birthday cupcake to encouraging him to blow up a building.  But this leads to the second of your two arguments.

Is That Little Cupcake Really Worthy of Concern?

In your comment, you imply that only the “new age, anti-sugar parent” could care about a cupcake in the first place.  But sadly, bw1, it’s not my kooky “new-age” thinking that’s necessitating larger school desks to accommodate overweight and obese children.  (Really, could any development be more emblematic of the problem at hand?)  We are in the midst of an alarming and well-documented public health crisis, one that affects one-third of our children and two-thirds of our adults, that weakens our economy and our national security — and which will almost certainly cause the premature death of a large swath of this generation of Americans.

And it’s a crisis that simply did not exist while you were admirably exercising your firm backbone, avoiding meat on Fridays back in the day.  Something categorically different is going on in today’s schools, a seismic shift that affects all children, not just those few with a religiously-restricted diet (and not even just those who are overweight, as a steady diet of junk food has adverse health effects other than obesity).

I'm really getting my money's worth out of this stock photo, aren't I? :-)

In the face of draconian budget cuts, many cash-strapped schools around the country currently:  rely on daily fast food and junk food fundraisers (at some Houston ISD high schools, there is a veritable “food court” set up each day by student and parent groups selling fast food); operate junk-food-stocked school stores to fund extracurricular activities; advertise sugary cereal and junk food on the sides of school buses; offer foods like fried chip nachos and bright blue slushies in their own cafeterias as so-called “competitive food” to drive profits;  let corporations selling junk food co-opt the educational process and infiltrate the halls, classrooms and sports fields with their advertising; and sell off their “pouring rights” to the highest beverage company bidder.  And even apart from the financial incentives to offer junk food, there are still the well-meaning teachers who offer candy as a reward for good behavior or correct answers, and, yes, there is this custom of allowing sugary birthday treats, which in a crowded classroom (again, budget cuts) can mean that 1/6 of the school year = Cupcake Day.

I suppose you will say that even in a junk-food-rich school environment like this, we must still demand “backbone” from our kids.  But why on earth should we have to do that?  Why can’t our schools be a trusted ally in raising the next generation well, rather than yet one more battleground for parents already outmatched by the almost two billion dollars a year in the direct advertising of junk food advertising to their children; by a fast food outlet on every corner; by highly processed food, chemically engineered as never before to make every synapse fire in delight; by the dance teacher, soccer coach or even fellow soccer mom who “fuels up” our little athletes with Oreos and Capri Sun; and by a host of other obstacles which I can assure you your own parents didn’t have to contend with?

Finally, I’d like to turn to my original post in which I compared the serving of a cupcake to my child without my consent to exposing him to second-hand smoke.  I wrote there:

To me, cupcakes in school are a lot like second-hand smoke.  Sure, you have the right to light up a cigarette at will, but you don’t have the right to do it in an elevator where I have no means of escape.   Similarly, when my kid is sitting in school he’s entirely captive to what goes on there.  And when you bring your two dozen cupcakes to class, you might be inadvertently violating all sorts of things I care about with respect to my child and how I choose to raise him.

 You’ve needled me a bit in your comment by writing with sarcasm:

Because abstaining from an available cupcake is as deadly as not breathing, right?

But that’s not quite fair, is it, bw1?  Because you conveniently omitted my own qualification to the second-hand smoke analogy contained in that same post:

Now, I can already hear you saying two things.  One, a cupcake isn’t a deadly agent like cigarette smoke.   That’s certainly true and I like a good cupcake as much as anybody – maybe more.  But lately  . . .  I feel like I just don’t have the luxury of viewing any  individual treat in a vacuum anymore. . . .  [I]n today’s world, is a cupcake just a cupcake?  Or do we have to view it in the context of an American child’s entire lifestyle, which is likely to be relatively sedentary, rich in highly processed, sugary, salty and fatty foods, with frequent, unnecessary snacking and all the rest?  

As everything I’ve just laid out illustrates, there has been such a radical shift in the food environment of today’s children that, as one TLT commenter, Traceh, so succinctly put it, it is “NEVER just one cupcake” anymore.

Thanks for reading TLT and commenting on the blog.  If you wish to reply, we can continue the discussion in the comments section of this post.

_______

* = bw1’s use of “sin” in this context is intriguing.  I can assure him/her that my opposition to junk food in schools is neither a religious nor moral crusade, but simply borne out of concern for children’s health.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 1,700 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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A Passionate Dad Defends In-Class Birthday Treats, And I Respond

New readers find The Lunch Tray almost every single day with a Google search for healthful and/or non-food alternatives to sugary classroom birthday treats.  The search takes them to “A Happy Ending to the Classroom Birthday Treat Dilemma,” in which I describe how my daughter (then in 5th grade) deliberated over many reader suggestions for alternative class treats, ultimately choosing to make a class donation to charity and bringing a white T-shirt to school for her classmates to sign with colored pens.  (The entire list of creative reader suggestions can be found in the comments section of the preceding post, “Don’t Make Me Eat My Words:  A Plea For Help From TLT Readers.”)

But a few weeks ago, as reader named Concerned Dad left this comment on another birthday cupcake-related post:

Well, my child’s school is the latest to fall in the crusade of the sugar/fun police. We recently received a letter home outlining the new guidelines and apparently banning a cupcake will solve our nations obese child problem.

Let me start by saying the concern for food allergies is real, but I believe proper precautions can and are being taken currently by the school to prevent any harm to the students with those allergies. I have yet to hear of a child going into anaphylaxis shock due to a nut filled treat. Parents are responsible and very cognizant of these rules.

Alas, I can’t help but be amazed by the ongoing restrictions on fun and cherished activities in our school district, and yes, a lot of this fun includes food as part of the tradition. This latest “revelation” borders on ludicrous. “If I ban cupcakes and treats, kids will no longer be obese.”

First off, today, it almost seems as if administrators never spent time in elementary school and looked forward to sharing a cupcake with their friends on their birthday or giving a lollipop to their teachers and classmates on Valentine’s day. To this day I still fondly remember looking forward to bringing treats to my class on my birthday (yes, we all celebrated birthdays). I can still remember getting a valentines day card with a piece of candy attached and looking forward to eating it at home. Destroying traditions aside, I can say with 100% certainty that a birthday cookie or Halloween treat is not the reason for childhood obesity in our country. It is actually foolish to think that banning a fruit roll up or twizzler at a school event that happens a few times a year will have any impact on obesity rates.

Non-food activities are fine, but food is a part of our traditions. Candy and cake are a large part of why we have such found memories of our birthdays and holidays. Food, sugar in particular, is not some evil thing that tiptoed into our society and made kids fat. Lack of activity, poor parenting, computer games, etc. all carry some of the blame. Destroying tradition by banning food activities will not be the solution. I can’t say I have the answer, but I do know this is not it. Nor, can I say this is a “step in the right direction”.

I won’t say it is not the job of our school’s to teach proper eating habits, but I will say, like most things in life, moderation and responsibility needs to be taught. Banning a food will not teach kids not to eat it. These regulations will not be the landmark event that we will look back on in 20 years as the miraculous solution to curb unsatisfactory eating habits.

I have to convey one father’s disappointment to whatever board or persons (apparently many moms on this site that have nothing better to do) sit around and come up with these brilliant changes. Changes I see sacrificing great life memories, traditions and events for a perceived, but highly unlikely effect on a problem that runs much deeper than a shared Hershey Kiss. It is a shame when a silly notion is actually carried out due to lack of opposition.

If some overly protective moms feel they need to ban their kids from partaking in certain activities, they should provide a note to the teachers. There is NO reason a majority should be punished for the desires of a few.

I’ve addressed all of these arguments before in multiple contexts on this blog, so I won’t belabor them here.  (If you’re new to TLT, the most comprehensive rebuttals are found in “Sarah Palin and Birthday Sweets Redux” and “The Birthday Cupcake Debate Heats Up.”)

But I did want to add a few thoughts to respond specifically to Concerned Dad.

First, I was struck by Concerned Dad’s confidence that severe allergic reactions to classroom treats are not a big issue.  Because my kids are blessedly free of food allergies, I turned to a mother of a nut-allergic child who has fought hard for appropriate precautions at her daughter’s school.  Here’s what she had to say:

As the mom of a peanut-allergic child who has witnessed first-hand the horror of an anaphylactic reaction, I can assure this parent that the threat in the school environment is constant and overwhelming.  Regardless of the care and concern from most school communities, random checks by school nurses reveal that parents sending snacks to school fail miserably at following allergen-free guidelines.  Some parents don’t know how to accurately read a label for food allergens or cross-contamination and others, from my experience, simply don’t care. Factor in the risks of uninformed substitute teachers, birthday treats, and daily emails listing recalls from mislabeled foods and the school setting can be a scary place.

And given that I once reported on a child’s tragic death from a food allergic reaction at a class party, I don’t think anyone can seriously doubt the degree to which classroom treats pose a real danger to many students.

But mostly I wanted to address here the palpable thread of nostalgia running through Concerned Dad’s entire comment, his belief that “food is a part of our traditions,” that “[c]andy and cake are a large part of why we have such found memories of our birthdays and holidays,” and his recollection that  “[t]o this day I still fondly remember looking forward to bringing treats to my class on my birthday (yes, we all celebrated birthdays). I can still remember getting a valentines day card with a piece of candy attached and looking forward to eating it at home.”

I absolutely agree with Concerned Dad’s feelings about the centrality of food in our celebrations and culture. But my question to him is, is there a legitimate reason why some parents no longer want their kids eating a cupcake at school every time a classmate has a birthday (which I once calculated as 1/6th of my daughter’s school year), even if the birthday cupcake was a cherished tradition in the past?  Is there a reason why we might want to change course?

And I think the answer to that question is a resounding yes.

In a rueful post I wrote a few weeks ago, I told you about an all-day school event my daughter attended at which she bought the following food to eat, food sold by the school itself to raise funds:  a bag of cookies, a bag of Funions, a bag of Chex Mix, two slices of Papa John’s pizza, a donut and a Coke.   When my daughter’s school reading team won a competition, they used to celebrate with a “Junk Food Party,” where kids were supposed to bring the most outrageous junk food they could find to share with each other.  Someone finally put a stop to that, so now they go out for burgers, fries and shakes.  In second grade, when my son got a math problem right, he was given M&Ms.  For every single correct answer.  Rewards for good behavior at school have at times included jumbo chocolate bars, the size you find in a movie theater.  The teacher of one of the school’s extracurricular clubs hands out candy to every child as he or she leaves for the day.  The nutrition-promoting signs in our local elementary school cafeterias are dwarfed by larger signs advertising the ice cream sold by our Food Services department to help drive profits.  And our Food Services’ idea of “healthy” a la carte food includes Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  

The situation is no better outside of school.  We walk into the bank, the kids get candy.  We go to the postal services store, they get candy.  When a “snack” is offered at any religious school class, day camp, team sport event, extracurricular activity, or any other place where two or more kids gather, it is almost invariably the type of cheap  prepackaged junk foods shown here.  Meanwhile, the food industry is spending almost $2 billion each year to directly market junk food to my children.  Two. Billion.  Dollars.

In today’s world, unlike my own childhood, junk food is made available– and aggressively marketed — to our kids all the time.

Perhaps the best description of the problem came from an early commenter on The Lunch Tray:

The problem is so ubiquitous… I find myself pausing before taking my kids to the carwash, for example (of all places), as they inevitably clamor for doritos; gatorade; sprite, etc., prominently displayed as soon as you enter the waiting area! Even as I walk my son from the parking lot to the baseball field for a Tuesday night practice, we have to pass a temporary stand set up to “fuel” the players with cookies, M&M’s, and James Coney Island hot-dogs. Sometimes I just want to scream with frustration.

So that’s what’s going on out there, Concerned Dad.  For those of us who care about our children’s health, we are (sometimes literally) screaming with frustration.

But are we being alarmist?  Are we silly mother hens?  Well, let’s consider the facts underlying our concerns.

One third of kids are already overweight or obese, such that school desks actually need to be made larger to accommodate today’s students.  Of course, obesity is only one marker of poor eating habits; there are also plenty of skinny kids who eat too much junk food and fast food, a problem not perceptible to the naked eye but no less significant in terms of their long-term health.  Meanwhile, obesity-related health care costs are headed toward $66 billion a year, causing a terrible drain on our already-weakened economy.   And the military is actually having trouble finding suitable young recruits, posing a real threat to our national security.

Of course we can’t peg all of these problems on one little birthday cupcake.  Nor can we peg them on eating habits alone.  Just as you say, Concerned Dad, “[l]ack of activity, poor parenting, computer games, etc. all carry some of the blame,” and I’d add to your list the loss of cooking skills, the demise of the family dinner, the wrongheaded allocation of farm subsidies and a host of other ills.  But the eight hours in which our kids are captive to the school environment do not have to be part of the problem, either.

The way I see it is this:  looking back to our own childhoods, it might have been perfectly reasonable to force the one outlier parent to send a note exempting his or her child from the birthday cupcakes.  But now, when we’re in the midst of a documented public health crisis, it seems much more reasonable to turn that model upside down.

If you want your kid to have a celebratory cupcake, I hope he or she enjoys it with gusto at your private birthday party.  But can you also respect the rights of those of us who are fighting – hard – to keep our children healthy in a society that seems to be thwarting us at every conceivable turn?

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A Soccer Mom After My Own Heart

I meant to post this a few days ago when it first came out:  a fantastic guest blog post on Fooducate by a self-described “soccer mom” taking on the junk food snacks regularly served at her kids’ practices and games.

It was written by Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, of Real Mom Nutrition, and if you close your eyes (well, don’t do that or you won’t be able to read it), the post may sound remarkably similar to my many  (some might say too many) rants against the junk foods regularly brought into public school classrooms.

Just as I often get the “who are you to decide how my kid celebrates his birthday?” argument when I rail against the birthday cupcake tradition, Sally got the same flak from other parents in the arena of organized kids’ sports.  Her retort?

When other parents brought this kind of crap to games every week, weren’t they deciding what was best for my child too?

Amen, sister!

And Sally totally gets my concern that, perhaps unlike in our own childhoods, all of these treats are just not “treats” anymore — they’ve become the daily norm for our kids:

The problem is, it’s not just Doritos at soccer. Kids are getting this kind of junk everywhere they go: in preschool, classrooms, church, clubs. And our kids, the ones washing down cupcakes with day-glo fruit drink at 9am every Saturday, belong to the first generation in modern history not expected to live as long as their parents because of their eating habits.

I think I’m in blogger love.  :-)  Check out her post in full here.

 

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Lunch Tray Friday Buffet: June 10, 2011

Just a few tidbits to round out the week. . . .

Scoring Baked Goods in a Back Alley

TLT readers know my feelings about birthday cupcakes in school classrooms (hint: not a fan) but if you do decide to provide cupcakes for your kid, you’ll appreciate this humor piece from Maraya Goyer Steadman.  Forget the cupcake liners and messy bowls of batter – this resourceful mom has found a whole new way to get what she needs.

[Hat tip:  Charles Kuffner]

From the File of Smoked Meats

Yeah, yeah, I know I’m supposed to find my food curiosities in the “Bacon Files,” but I think you’ll forgive a little cheating when you lay your eyes on this beauty, a Chanel-style purse made entirely out of beef jerky.

design copyright Nancy Wu

What next?  Mortadella Manolos?  Diane von Wurst-enberg wrap dresses?  Dolce and Gabagool?

OK, no more meat puns.

[Hat tip:  Ecouterre, with thanks to Donna Gershenwald for sharing the link with me.]

From the TLT Facebook Fan Page

If you visited TLT’s Facebook fan page this week you would have learned more about the E. Coli scare in Europe, arsenic in our chicken, and cow-produced human breast milk coming to a store near you.  Hmm . . .  that rather disgusting line-up is not likely to encourage you to “like” TLT on Facebook, is it?

But wait!  If you were a TLT Facebook fan, you would also have gotten tons of great tips for nutritious-but-not-too-messy car snacks for kids (thanks, readers, for responding), some good school food news out of Minnesota, news about the pending school food regulations, and a cute photo of a TLT reader holding her very own vintage TLT lunch tray, won in a recent giveaway.

So consider joining our Facebook community, a great way to stay in touch with me and other readers, especially as my blogging schedule slows a little bit this summer.

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Airs Tonight

Finally, don’t forget that the last episode (as far as I can tell) of this season’s “Food Revolution” airs tonight on ABC, 9pm EST.  We’ll have the usual TLT Watch Party wrap-up on Monday.

Have a great weekend, everyone!  More Lunch Tray next week. . . .

 

 

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A Happy Ending to the Classroom Birthday Treat Dilemma

Last week I told you I was facing a difficult test of my principles.  On this blog (and elsewhere) I’ve come out strongly against sugary  birthday treats in the classroom, but my fifth-grade daughter really wanted to bring cupcakes or donuts to school for her birthday tomorrow.

I sent out an SOS to Lunch Tray readers for suggestions for alternative treats, and last night I read out aloud to my family every one of your creative ideas — everything from “cupcakes” made from fresh fruit (thank you, Mile Hi Mama) to buying trees for planting by the class (ditto, Corrie) to origami flying squirrels (Michele Hays)!

At first my daughter was leaning toward healthier food treats, like homemade chocolate-dipped strawberries (suggested by an anonymous reader via email) or possibly gift certificates for Ben & Jerry’s cones, which would at least require some parental approval before the treats could be eaten (thank you, Tari).

But then I explained to my daughter how I, too, had once thought healthier treats were a fine substitute for sugary ones until parents of food-allergic kids woke me up to the fact that even those foods can exclude and/or endanger their children.  I did, say, however, that I’d be happy to go the chocolate strawberry route (as a compromise) if she really wanted to bring something edible.

My daughter mulled it over for a while and then announced that she wants to celebrate her birthday in school in two ways.   First, she’s going to bring in a plain white t-shirt to class to be signed by her classmates with fabric markers (thank you, Visitor from FAS!) and second, she wants to make a birthday donation to the charity of her choice in the name of her entire fifth grade class (excellent idea, We3Beans!).  (My daughter chose Star of Hope, which aids homeless families in Houston.)

I have to say, I’d been dreading this conversation with my daughter, fearing that she’d feel I was being too rigid by putting my principles ahead of her understandable desire to do what everyone else is doing. But instead my whole family wound up having a thought-provoking discussion about obesity, food allergies, the rights of parents to keep other parents from feeding their kids, the ways in which economically disadvantaged students might feel left out by the whole “birthday treat” custom, and more.

A reader named “another fas visitor” had advised: “What sort of education and message do you want your child and her classmates to have with whatever you send in?  Figure that out and send in something that relates to that message.”

And that’s just what we did.

Thank you again to everyone who took the time to write in, share links and provide encouragement.  And I have to say, one comment in particular kept me on the straight and narrow throughout these deliberations.  From reader Jamie, an early (and beloved) Lunch Tray adopter:

You best stick to your guns Missy…You and you alone changed MY whole view on Cupcakes At School. If you cave I’m gonna sic my kid on YOU when he realizes he’s not getting CAS on his birthday.

Good luck and Happy Birthday to your daughter!

[Ed Update:  Be sure to check out the original post on this issue  – in the reader comments section you’ll find many other wonderful ideas that you might use with your own kids.]

 

Putting My Gelt Where My Mouth Is

My son asked me if I’d come talk to his third grade class about Hanukkah tomorrow.  I was actually surprised he asked — we’re rapidly approaching the age when my very existence must not be acknowledged in front of peers — so this afternoon I went to my files to dust off my little outline about the Maccabees, Antiochus, et al.

When I’ve given this talk in my kids’ classes in the past, it’s always been accompanied by some sort of Hanukkah treat.  One year, another mom and I brought hot latkes and applesauce, and other times I’ve brought baggies containing a dreidel, chocolate gelt and instructions on how to play the game.   This year, though, after somehow becoming the public face of the Anti-Birthday-Cupcake movement (here, here, here and here!), I see that bringing any food treats at all would, of course, be the height of hypocrisy.

But do you know what?  It feels just . . . weird . . . to do this presentation without accompanying food.  Maybe it’s an inherently Jewish thing; to paraphrase the writer Shalom Auslander, most Jewish holidays can be reduced to:  “The tried to kill us.  They failed.  Let’s eat.”  Or maybe it’s that syndrome we’ve talked about on TLT quite a bit, which is that each parent (rightly) feels that their one little, innocuous treat can’t do any harm, but no one is looking at the big picture.

Even as I fall into that same pattern of faulty thinking, I remind myself of just last week, when my son came home stuffed with sugary treats from not one, but two, birthdays in his class (cookies for one child, then cupcakes for another).  Worse, these birthdays happened to fall on Friday, which is when our family celebrates Shabbat with, among other things, a nice dessert after dinner.  And lately, my kids and I also have a semi-regular tradition of getting a fruit smoothie on Fridays after school.  But cookies plus cupcakes plus smoothies plus Shabbat dessert = way too much sugar for one kid in one day, and I was, frankly, resentful of those two well-meaning parents who had brought food to school.

So with that in mind, I’m putting my gelt where my mouth is.  No chocolate coins this year — just the dreidels will have to do.  I feel a little like Scrooge (to mix the holiday metaphors), but I know what I’m doing is right.

Right?

STILL Yapping About Birthday Cupcakes, This Time in the Examiner and the Atlantic Monthly’s Newswire

An FYI to Houston readers – I had a column in the last issue (November 25, 2010) of the Examiner newspapers making the case for getting birthday treats out of schools.  If you’re a regular TLT reader and/or read my recent guest blog post on The Wellness Bitch on the same subject, this will all be familiar ground.

I also just realized that an excerpt from my first post about Sarah Palin’s sweets-in-schools protest appeared on the Atlantic Monthly’s “Atlantic Wire” blog the same day it appeared here, which was sort of cool.

But don’t worry – I have no present plans to beat the treats-in-schools topic into the ground any further.  And all this coverage of my anti-cupcake stance is pretty ironic, really, given my intense love for them outside the school setting.  I just hope my rhetoric doesn’t result in my being barred from my favorite cupcake bakeries  — that would be much too high a price to pay for my principles.

The Birthday Cupcake Debate Heats Up

I intended to post on an entirely different topic today, but then I received this robust and thought-provoking response in favor of the right to bring cupcakes (or other treats) to school on your child’s birthday:

As a mother, an attorney, and a libertarian, I can tell you the last thing I want is one more stinking law on the books regulating how I ought to raise my kids.

Personally, I aim to be the kind of mother who speaks with authority and raises children who listen. Asking my legislators to assist me, because I don’t want to be the “mean” parent, seems terribly weak.

Pro-freedom = Pro-cupcake.

P.S. Not that it matters (I’m pro-cupcake either way), but 1/7th is an overstatement. 25% of all birthdays occur over the summer, not to mention weekends.

Usually if I reply to a reader, I do it in the comments section but this seemed like a conversation worth having up front.  So, here’s my response:

First, thank you for taking me on on this issue.  I want this forum to be a place for debate rather than an echo chamber full of people who share my views.  And reading your response today forced me to sharpen my own thinking, which is always a good thing.

While you might get a different impression from my recent lily-livered cave-in on the birthday donuts, you and I sound fairly similar in our parenting approach.  My two children will sadly attest to the fact that I’m pretty firm about setting limits, on everything from screen time to junk food.   And, like you, I don’t want to live in a nanny state.   That said, I do take issue with the idea that “pro-freedom = pro-cupcake” because in this case, your freedom is directly encroaching on my own.

To me, cupcakes in school are a lot like second-hand smoke.  Sure, you have the right to light up a cigarette at will, but you don’t have the right to do it in an elevator where I have no means of escape.   Similarly, when my kid is sitting in school he’s entirely captive to what goes on there.  And when you bring your two dozen cupcakes to class, you might be inadvertently violating all sorts of things I care about with respect to my child and how I choose to raise him.

Maybe, like a parent who posted here earlier, I have a policy against feeding my child certain additives like the high fructose corn syrup, trans fat or artificial colorings found in many supermarket cupcakes. Maybe, like another parent who posted here, there’s only so much sugar I want my kid to have in a day, and now that he’s eaten your cupcake the quota’s filled, leaving me in the unenviable position of having to deny treats that I might otherwise have been inclined to allow.   Whatever the issue, it seems to me that the feeding of a child should be within the sole purview of the child’s parent, not other parents and not the school (unless of course, I’m permitting my child to receive lunch or breakfast there.)

Now, I can already hear you saying two things.  One, a cupcake isn’t a deadly agent like cigarette smoke.   That’s certainly true and I like a good cupcake as much as anybody – maybe more.  But lately  — and this is going to be the subject of a whole other post (or series of posts) —  I feel like I just don’t have the luxury of viewing any  individual treat in a vacuum anymore.    We now live in a society about which Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said: “. . . if you go with the flow in America today, you will end up overweight or obese.”   That is, he believes obesity (and its associated diseases) are almost an inevitable consequence of the way we live now.

So in today’s world, is a cupcake just a cupcake?  Or do we have to view it in the context of an American child’s entire lifestyle, which is likely to be relatively sedentary, rich in highly processed, sugary, salty and fatty foods, with frequent, unnecessary snacking and all the rest?  This is a big question, and something I want to examine in more detail in the coming days.

The second thing I’m guessing you’ll say is, if I claim to have such backbone as a parent, why not tell my kid firmly, “Sorry, buddy, no classroom cupcakes for you.”    Yes, I certainly could do that.  But why should I be put in the position of asking that of a seven year old, glassy-eyed with envy as 24 of his peers sit around him, licking cupcake frosting off their fingers?  Just to accommodate your inalienable right to celebrate a birthday with sweets on a school campus — sweets which could be enjoyed at your off-site party instead, or a birthday which could be celebrated in the classroom with dollar store toys, healthy food or the other items suggested by readers here?  I guess I’m not sure why your rights necessarily trump mine in this case.

One last thing:  whether you regard it as an outrage or a big yawn, I stand firmly by my calculation that 1/7th of the school year = cupcake day.  I don’t know what’s going on in your school, but in ours, kids whose birthdays fall on the weekend celebrate on Monday or Friday, and kids with summer birthdays (like my son) are allowed to celebrate it with treats on another day, usually in May.

It really is, as one blogger put it, “No Cupcake Left Behind.”

If you’d like to reply, I’ll certainly post your response.  And thank you again for reading and sharing your thoughts.

As for the rest of you, I promise that this blog isn’t going to devolve into an ongoing debate about cupcakes in the classroom, but I do think this is an issue worth examining in that it relates to many of the larger themes I hope to address on this blog.   Share your thoughts as well.

I’ll sign back on after the holiday weekend.   Enjoy, everyone!

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