Does Childhood Hunger Justify Food in the Classroom?

A reader named Sheri left a thought-provoking comment on yesterday’s post in which I asked TLT’ers to chime in on a parent’s question about eliminating food in the classroom.  Sheri pointed out that many kids come from food insecure households and therefore my desire to eliminate all food from the classroom (articulated most succinctly in my “Food in the Classroom Manifesto“) might be misguided.

Here’s what Sheri wrote:

I understand that some may be frustrated with food in the classroom, however we need to consider that for many, that food may be the only food they receive in a day. I am a mom and don’t agree with the junk food in the classroom either – my child has multiple food allergies, so I have spoken with our teachers about making the party sign-up sheets start off with a list of healthy options. I also educate about label reading and the dangers of processed ingredients.

But there is often other things to consider before you begin a campaign to stop ALL food in the classroom.

Before you begin a crowdsourcing campaign, I would dig deeper in your communities and find some answers (this may be difficult, but worth the trouble).

Did you know?:
Food Insecurity Facts (

– 16.7 million children lived in food insecure households in 2011.[i]
– 20% or more of the child population in 36 states and D.C. lived in food insecure households in 2010. The District of Columbia (30.7%) and Oregon (29.0%) had the highest rates of children in households without consistent access to food.[ii]
– In 2010, the top five states with the highest rate of food insecure children under 18 are the District of Columbia, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, & Florida.[iii]
– In 2010, the top five states with the lowest rate of food insecure children under 18 are North Dakota, New Hampshire, Virginia, Minnesota, & Massachusetts. [iv]

There was a recent article that addresses the frustrations and push back that breakfast in the classroom is receiving (

If you would like to better understand the full scope of the issue, perhaps a family movie (

And here is my reply to Sheri.  After you read it, please feel free to jump in with a comment of your own on this important question.


Thanks for all of this valuable information

You may be a new Lunch Tray reader, but childhood hunger is a cause close to my heart, and one about which I write often here on TLT (see the many links below). Indeed, just recently I was a “Food Blogger for Hunger” in association with A Place at the Table, the excellent documentary film you cite above.

Here in Houston, over 80% of our students rely on free or reduced price federal school meals and it was precisely that issue of economic dependency which led to my interest in school food reform in the first place — and to the inception of this blog back in 2010.  It was also the issue that motivated my successful campaign against “pink slime” in school food ground beef last year.  And childhood hunger is the reason why I’ve always been a supporter of breakfast-in-the-classroom programs even though they can be, as you note, quite controversial — as such a program was here in Houston ISD when it was first instituted.

But I think it’s very important to make a distinction between “food in the cafeteria” and “food in the classroom.” The former is federally regulated and, thanks to the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in late 2010, great strides have been made in the nutritional profile of school meals. While we still have a lot of work to do in terms of reducing schools’ reliance on highly processed foods, children dependent on the federal lunch and breakfast programs (as well as after-school snack and even school supper programs) can and do have access to nutritionally balanced meals each and every school day (and throughout the summer where summer meals are offered.) That access is critical in an age in which so many kids, as you note, live in food-insecure households.

Food in the classroom, however, is another story.  This food tends to fall into three categories: food brought in for classroom celebrations; the use of food by teachers as a teaching tool or manipulative; and food handed out by teachers or principals as a reward for good behavior or academic performance.

In the case of classroom parties, an excellent 2012 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, co-authored by Marion Nestle, found that the majority of items offered for class celebrations were “low-nutrient, energy-dense foods” such as cake, fruit punch, ice cream, Doritos, cheese puffs, and potato chips.  And while I know of no academic studies looking at the latter two categories of classroom food, in my experience (and in the reported experience of my readers), food used as a teaching tool and as a reward also almost always falls into the “junk food” category.

For example, I’ll never forget the day my daughter told me about an elementary school science lesson which replicated the circulatory system by using corn syrup for plasma, red hots for platelets and another candy — I think white Tic Tacs — for white blood cells. After mixing up this concoction for demonstration purposes, all the children were given a cup of it to eat.  Lovely.

Similarly, in prior TLT posts you can read all about how my daughter, now in middle school, was last year regularly handed 12 oz cans of Coke and full-sized packages of gummi bears for good performance in a language class, and how my son was given a jumbo sized Hershey bar for winning a school lottery. Those are just two instances of the many, many times in which my kids have been handed out junk food by a teacher as a reward.

Here’s my point:  I think we can all agree that even children beset by childhood hunger should not be consuming empty calories.  In fact, to the extent children are being fed junk food in the classroom, it’s likely they will then consume less of the nutritionally balanced, taxpayer-subsidized meal offered in the lunch room.  That’s not so critical for kids like mine, who can make up any nutritional gaps at home, but it’s quite detrimental for kids who don’t come from homes well-stocked with healthful food.

So given the almost uniformly poor nutritional quality of food in the classroom, I reject the notion that childhood hunger justifies its use.

That said, there certainly are instances of teachers in impoverished areas bringing nutritious food into their classrooms to feed hungry students, often paying for this food out of their own pocket. That’s entirely different, of course, though it still raises other concerns about classroom food, such as allergy issues.  Similarly, those offerings aren’t subject to any kind of oversight, so we’re relying on a particular teacher’s definition of “healthful food” – one with which we might not all agree.  I also believe that if hungry children have access to school breakfast, school lunch, and after-school snack (if not also supper, as we have here in Houston at some particularly impoverished schools), then even that sort of food in the classroom might not be necessary.

Let me know what you think about all this, and I hope other TLT readers will chime in as well on this important question.

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Can We Crowd-Source A Reader Question re Food in the Classroom?

Between my recent laptop crash and this mysterious “Lunch-Tray-third-anniversary-project” I keep alluding to on Facebook, I’m falling woefully behind on various promised posts.  One such post is the answer to a question left on TLT’s Facebook page by a reader named Allison who is concerned with junk food in her child’s classroom.  Since I’m pressed for time, I’m going to share my bare bones advice for Allison, but I’d love it if my readers could chime in, too, with their own thoughts and experiences.

Here’s Allison’s post:

I have read some of your articles re: food in the classroom – and want to try to encourage our school to consider food-free classrooms (or at the very least – junk free classrooms). Can you give me advice on the best way to plant this idea w/the admin? I was thinking of compiling a notebook with articles/resources (some of yours if that is ok) to share with the principal – stuff to back me up rather than just telling him why we should go this direction. Food/junk in the classroom has always been a concern of mine – but even more so since my youngest has a severe food allergy – and will begin K in the fall. My oldest does not have food allergies – but is constantly coming home reporting to me the crap she has been given throughout the day – as rewards – as incentives – as manipulatives in learning a subject. The worst offenders tend to be the teachers who do not have children themselves (and interesting to note also have weight issues themselves). Any advice you can give me to help me try to make a difference for the health of all students I would greatly appreciate. I know there are other parents who agree with me at this school – but are not willing to step forward b/c of the backlash that most likely will occur from those parents who see nothing wrong with kids grazing all day on sugar. Thanks!

My answer:


I totally feel your pain.  When it comes to food in the classroom, what you’re taking on is not just a classroom problem, but a much larger societal mindset which doesn’t see any problem with these practices, or which doesn’t view junk food as particularly harmful, and changing those attitudes is a very tall order for any one parent to address.  Even in my own kids’ schools, I’m glad to report that the incidence of food-as-a-reward has gone down over the years, but the practice certainly hasn’t stopped entirely.

Before turning your question over to TLT readers, here’s my quick answer:

1.  Forming a coalition of parents is always easier than going it alone.  There likely will be a backlash from other parents, and it’s good to have other people standing with you so you can’t be portrayed as some nutty outlier. I’ve found that health-conscious parents often suffer in silence, and you might be surprised at how many parents feel as you do once you broach the subject with them.  This can be done informally, through casual conversations, or you could raise the issue at a PTA or other school meeting to garner support that way.

2.  Try to locate your district’s wellness policy and see if it has any language regarding the use of food in the classroom.  The policy should be somewhere on your district’s website, often housed wherever there is information about your SHAC (that stands for School (or Student) Health Advisory Council (or Committee)).  It’s likely the topic is not addressed, but if it is, then it may be persuasive to show your principal that his/her school is not in compliance with stated district policy.

3.  It is always much better if you can marshal facts in support of your position.  So rather than making vague complaints about “unhealthy” food, a standard which is open to broad interpretation, it’s much more persuasive to be able to say, “On such-and-such day, the children were given such-and-such sugary foods as a classroom manipulative, with each child likely consuming X  teaspoons of sugar during the lesson.  However, the American Heart Association recommends no more than about 3-4 tsps of sugar (130-170 calories) in a young child’s day, which is far less than the amount consumed in the classroom that day.  And the candy eaten at school was likely not the only source of sugar in most students’ diets that day.”  That sort of thing.

4.  There are lots of resources on the Internet to help you make your case to a principal, teacher or other parents.  Here’s a list from a recent TLT post:

KY Healthy Kids has a useful list of medical organizations which discourage the use of food rewards, a list which may carry weight with your child’s principal or teacher.  My own Food in the Classroom Manifesto lists ten important reasons why classrooms should be food-free.  (A clean, easily copied Word version — no fancy “parchment” background to gobble up your printer ink— can be downloaded here.)  The awesome Rudd ‘Roots Parents website, run by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, has loads of additional information and guidance for parents to draw upon, as does the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the many other sites in my list of parent resources to the right of this post.

To that list, I’d also add this PDF handout from the Spoonfed blog.

OK, TLT’ers, anything to add?

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A Reader’s Food-In-The-Classroom Success Story

Last week I shared a reader’s account of a teacher who used candy and other junk food to teach kindergarteners the ABCs and who was oblivious to two reported food allergies in her classroom.  But the story had a happy ending:  after the parent met with the teacher, the junk food program was dropped and the teacher was better informed about the food allergies.

Today I want to share with you another reader success story pertaining to food in the classroom.  Here it is:

Hi Bettina,

Just wanted to share a small success story, and thank you for your work on The Lunch Tray, which inspired me to take a stand for healthier food at my kids’ school.

I have always been bothered by candy rewards in the classroom and donuts and cupcakes served at school birthday celebrations. After reading every post on the subject on your blog, I set up a meeting with my school’s principal and PTA president, armed with your Food-in-the-Classroom Manifesto. They agreed with me in principle but were very reluctant to change the policy because food is such a sensitive issue for parents. The principal suggested a survey from a grassroots parent group to see if there would be support in the community, so I formed a Wellness Committee with like-minded moms and we sent out a survey on school birthday celebrations to parents. We had a clear majority in favor of eliminating birthday treats.

We gave the survey results to the administration, along with recommendations for alternative ways to celebrate birthdays based on parent feedback, and they implemented a new policy before the beginning of the school year. Parents are no longer allowed to bring in food for birthdays. Instead, the school has come up with simple and meaningful ways to honor kids’ birthdays. Since it was clear that parents supported a healthier school environment, the school also adopted a no candy in the classroom policy.

Naturally, there has been a mixed response and some parents are angry.  Hopefully things will calm down and our committee will be able to focus on positive changes we can make in the school, rather than just take things away.

Anyway, thank you for giving me the tools to make a small difference.  I really enjoy your blog and have been following silently for a while now.

This story made me feel so good, knowing that the discussions here on The Lunch Tray and my “manifesto” helped inspire a parent to make significant, positive changes.

And in turn this reader inspired me to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.  I’ve had mixed success reducing classroom treats at my own kid’s school and given that my son is going to graduate next year, I was starting to wonder if it was worth trying anymore.  But last night i sent an email to our elementary school principal asking for permission to send out my own survey to quantify parents’ views on birthday treats and food rewards, as well as chocolate milk and a la carte junk food  in the cafeteria.  Perhaps this data will help me in my efforts, just as it helped this reader.

Clearly we can all learn from and support each other in this forum, so if you have your own food-in-the-classroom story to share, feel free to email it to me at bettina at thelunchtray dot com.

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A Food In the Classroom Horror Story

Just in time for Halloween, I wanted to share a food-in-the-classroom horror story sent to me a few weeks ago by a reader from Ohio.  Here’s what she told me:

At kindergarten orientation the teacher went over classroom stuff and passed around clipboards for parents to volunteer, etc. One of the clipboards was for parents to bring in ABC Snacks, which paired a food with each letter. For example: marshmallows for M, cookies for C, Oreos for O, dinosaur fruit snacks for D, brownies for B… A couple were not so bad: grapes for G and raisins for R. Almost all were pure sugar, though.

My child is allergic to several things, and out of the 26 snacks she could only eat about 8. Most disturbing is that there were nutty bars for N. (NUTTY BARS!)

After orientation I asked the teacher, “I missed when you said this part- what’s going on with the ABC Snacks? Is it once a week they get one of these?”

She said yes and I told her (again) that my daughter has food allergies and can’t have the majority of them. She said, “Oh! I didn’t even look at this! Someone just gave me this activity. So which ones can’t she eat?”

I told her and she said, “Well, she’ll see the other kids with it and get the idea.” I said that I’d bring in some raisins for my daughter, to make her somewhat less excluded. This is not ideal, but my mind was completely blown.

Then the teacher pointed out the nutty bars and asked if it would be a problem just having them in the room with her. My kid doesn’t have airborne peanut sensitivity, so I said, “No, if she doesn’t eat them she’ll be okay. But this little boy over here was also at the peanut free table today, so it might be a problem for him.”

“Oh? There’s another peanut allergy in the room?”

To summarize, all of the forms that I filled out before school began that explained my child’s allergy were not read- at least not by her teacher. This was technically the first day of school and she had no idea that another child had a peanut allergy. Upon finding this out, it took her 4 weeks to decide not to do an activity including peanuts. Most striking for me was that she repeatedly said, “I didn’t even look at this. Someone just gave it to me.”


When we discussed the matter further by email, the reader told me that the problem really stemmed not from the teacher but a “bad food culture throughout the school.”   She said that PTA fundraisers and rewards usually involved junk food by default and that teachers were given no guidelines at all on the use of food in the classroom, with practices varying considerably from class to class.  She added, ” I know that in some schools, when the nurse sees a food allergy form come in she takes it to the teacher, explains it, and has the teacher sign off on it. Here, it wasn’t even communicated.”

The happy ending to this story is that after meeting with the teacher, the reader reported that the “ABC snacks” program had been dropped and that the teacher seemed to better understand that the reader’s child must not be given any food that wasn’t brought from home.

But all of this points up — again — how food in the classroom can cause all sorts of unintended problems.  Whoever thought of this “ABC snacks” idea probably just hoped the program would get little kids excited about learning their alphabet.   (And this idea dates back to the Middle Ages when Jewish teachers would drizzle honey on Hebrew letters on a child’s first day of study, to create an association between sweetness and learning.)  But as we know, there are so many reasons parents might object to food being used as a teaching tool or reward, from serious food allergies, as was the case here, to a common sense desire to limit sugary, processed foods in a child’s diet.

Click here to read the history that led to my pounding out a “manifesto.”

Once again, people, I must refer you to my Food In the Classroom Manifesto (always available on the right side of the blog), which lays out ten reasons why schools need to re-think the use of food.  Feel free to download it, copy it and share it with your child’s school to help explain why you and other parents are concerned about practices like this.

I’m going to share another reader’s food-in-the-classroom story next week, and feel free to send me yours at bettina at thelunchtray dot com.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 4,500 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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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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