Helpful New “White Paper” on Food Rewards in the Classroom

M & M’s doled out for every correct math answer in second grade. . .   Jumbo boxes of Milk Duds in the third grade good behavior “treasure box” . . . .  A “Junk Food Party” to honor the winning team in an academic contest . . . . 12 oz. cans of Coke and full-sized bags of gummi bears handed out for good performance in seventh grade German class.

It's sad how often I have an occasion to use this stock photo!These are just a few examples of the junk food rewards my kids have received over the years from teachers in their classrooms. It’s a practice I never expected to contend with when my children first entered public school, and it’s what eventually led me to pound out in frustration my 2012 “Food In the Classroom Manifesto.”

But as good as it felt to write that manifesto (and to see it widely shared by so many like-minded parents), ranting about the problem isn’t a solution.  Yet I can tell you from experience that sometimes teachers, principals and fellow parents see no harm from “one little treat” in the classroom and it can be difficult to make one’s case against this practice without factual support.

That’s why I’m thrilled to share with you a new “white paper” on food rewards in classrooms, co-authored by my blogging colleague Casey Hinds of KY Healthy Kids, along with Dr. Alicia Fedewa of University of Kentucky, College of Education and Anita Courtney, M.S., R.D., of Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition.  Now a concerned parent can find in one source all of the prevailing scientific research arguing against the use of food as a reward, a chart showing every leading medical organization which has condemned the practice, generally useful statistics on childhood obesity and even some colorful quotes from experts.  I love this one from Marlene Schwartz, Director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity:   

. . .  rewarding children with non-nutritive foods in school “undermines our efforts to teach them about good nutrition. . . it’s like teaching children a lesson on the importance of not smoking, and then handing out ashtrays and lighters to the kids who did the best job listening.”

The white paper also includes guidance for schools on how to manage behavior in classrooms without relying on food rewards, as well as a list of useful resources to support that goal.  And while the document is tailored to address the obesity crisis in Kentucky, with some state-specific data included, it’s still applicable to those of us living elsewhere.

So, a huge thank you to Casey and her team of experts for taking the time to put this document together and sharing it with the rest of us.  I consider the white paper the perfect compliment to my manifesto and will edit the manifesto to include a link to the white paper for everyone’s future use.

Are food rewards a big issue in your school classrooms?  Let us know in a comment below.

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A Teacher Defends Junk Food Classroom Rewards

Way back in November I received an email from a teacher named Paul in which he defended (to a degree) the use of junk food classroom rewards. I wanted to share his email with you right after Thanksgiving, but then I took my month-long mental health break from blogging and Paul’s email got lost in the shuffle. Now, though, I’m glad for the long delay since Paul’s email offers a perfect counterpoint to the discussion we’ve been having this week (both here — “The Junk Food Deluge: Is It As Simple as ‘Just Say No?‘” — and on TLT’s Facebook page) about third parties giving our kids junk food without our permission.

So here’s Paul’s letter:

I enjoyed the topic of junk food as a reward, and feel it makes a great talking point. That being said, I have some counterpoints I would like to make. Before I make my argument realize that my point of view comes from that of a childless former teacher.

alphabet candy rewards
Candy for big academic accomplishments?

The basic mindset behind giving kids junk food as a reward is they like it, and it’s cheap. Kids like junk food. The idea of a reward is to give them something they will enjoy. Also, all of the food rewards I have given my students came out of my pocket. Would I prefer to give them a low sugar granola bar? Of course. Part of being a teacher is modeling good behavior. But, I get more bang for my buck with junk food. If Whole Foods would offer me the same prices I would have given my students healthier rewards.

I completely agree with your point that students should not be rewarded for every accomplishment. It teaches students that they should only engage in something that offers an intrinsic reward and diminishes the value of what they are doing. A former coworker was asked by one of his students if they got a grade for taking notes. My coworker responded, “Do you get an allowance for putting on underwear?” Kids should not expect a reward for going through the motions of life.

However, I think students should be rewarded for major accomplishments. It would be hypocritical not to reward them. As a teacher I preached that hard work can equal success. And look at how adults measure success. We use objects: cars, boats, houses, clothes, etc. To expect kids to not see the world the same way would be a double standard. Also, kids cannot see big picture. They need a quicker turn around. To show them that you worked hard for 2.5 months, earned an A, and now you get a prize reinforces the good habits.

I was purposely vague with the use of the word “prize”. I empathize with parents when they want to limit junk food. And parents should hold the ultimate decision on what their children eat. And it must be horrible for your child to earn a reward that you need to take away.

But, give teachers another option. Junk food companies are the only ones giving away their product. And they make it easy. They drop off coupons, I hand out coupons. It comes at no dollar/time/effort cost to the teacher.

OK, TLT’ers. What do you think? If you want to share your thoughts below, I know you’ll keep in mind Paul’s thoughtful and civil tone and you’ll word your own comments accordingly. :-) Also, if you want Paul to see your comment, it’s probably best to leave it here and not on TLT’s Facebook page.

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Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 5,100 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, 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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