I recently came across an an open letter, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, in which a doctor expresses dismay over the glut of junk food his first grader is offered at school.
As someone who’s written a 40-page free guide devoted to precisely this topic, “The Lunch Tray’s Guide to Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom,” as well as a widely-shared “Food-in-the-Classroom Manifesto,” I was of course quite sympathetic to the views of this father, Dr. Sean Lucan, a family physician in the Bronx. Indeed, many of Lucan’s sentiments – such as wondering why other parents are allowed to feed his kid without his consent, or that “treats” cease to be treats if they’re routinely offered – could have been taken straight out of past Lunch Tray posts. (See, e.g., “The Birthday Cupcake Debate Heats Up,” “Sarah Palin and Birthday Sweets Redux” and the many, many other posts in the Related Posts section below.)
But despite being totally sympathetic to Lucan’s distress and supportive of his efforts to clean up his child’s school food environment, two things about Lucan’s open letter took me aback a little bit.
First, I couldn’t help but feel that Lucan was bringing a whole lot of negative judgment to the other parents at his child’s school. For example, in discussing the snacks that parents were sending in as part of the school’s “Healthy Snack” program, two items particularly aroused his ire – Mott’s applesauce and Go-Gurt yogurt – which he describes this way: “It would hardly be a stretch to characterize Mott’s Apple Sauce as a fruit-added corn syrup or Go-Gurt as a sugary blend of suspicious synthetics with a modicum of milk to connote actual fermented dairy.” Similarly, he describes the Goldfish crackers offered in the after-school snack program as “an industrial amalgam of artificial ingredients and refined starch.”
He then scratches his head in confusion over why on earth parents and school personnel would feed his child these foods. He writes:
I gleaned from orientation events at the school that other parents were well educated and quite comfortable financially. Certainly other parents were invested— and had invested—in their children’s futures. Likewise the school seemed dedicated to healthy child development, and teachers and administrators seemed committed to an overall goal of building healthy minds and bodies. Perhaps these well-intended, informed, and well-resourced people just didn’t see the connection between food, education, and broader child wellness?
It’s not that I quibble with Lucan’s description of these highly processed foods, but his confusion struck me as a bit tone deaf or myopic. Because while I don’t want my kid eating Go-Gurt either, I do have a lot of sympathy for school personnel and for parents – even these more affluent, private school parents – who believe they are providing healthy snacks when they select applesauce, yogurt and crackers over the many other options out there.
Forgive me for obnoxiously quoting myself here, but as I tell readers in my free guide (in the section on Best Practices for Advocacy), parents are always better served if they start these discussions by remembering that:
. . . your definition of “healthy” food may differ dramatically from someone else’s. We all have varying levels of nutrition education and our own particular set of nutrition concerns: some parents worry about artificial ingredients or GMOs, for example, while others trust that anything in the food supply must be safe. Every day we read about some new and supposedly better way of eating, whether vegan or Paleo or low-carb or gluten-free, and even the nation’s leading experts can’t seem to agree on the ideal American diet. All of this confusion is compounded by the processed food industry, which is heavily invested in making health claims for its products. It’s no wonder, then, that one parent might pick up a 100-calorie bag of “100% whole grain” Baked Doritos and think it’s an excellent choice for her children, while another might regard it as Satan’s own snack food.
Lucan tells us that he held a “coffee talk” to educate the school population about healthy choices, and perhaps he did approach the group with the requisite sensitivity and empathy when he explained why Go-Gurt isn’t actually a great snack choice. Obviously, I wasn’t there, so I can’t know.
But then there was a second aspect of Lucan’s letter that also took me aback. Because he wants the snacks at his child’s school to be only whole-foods-based, he’s not happy that the school’s “no-nut” policy rules out one possible category of healthy snacks. Therefore he and some like-minded parents:
argued [with the school administration] that the “nut-free” policy has only a small chance of benefiting a tiny minority of students, although science does not clearly support the strategy and experts do not espouse it. Moreover, the cost is an inconvenience to all families and possible nutritional compromise for unaffected students (ie, through vastly inferior chips, crackers, and cookies officially recommended as alternatives and by removing nutritious staples from options available to possibly picky eaters). By comparison, our proposed new policy could benefit nearly all students. . . .
Lucan subsequently wrote a piece for U.S. News & World Report, again urging schools to drop their nut bans in order to allow healthy nut snacks on campus: “When School Food Policies Are Just Nuts.”
I’m certainly no expert regarding the best way to manage food allergies in the school setting, but it seems to me that there’s a categorical difference between removing a nut ban (if that’s indeed recommended by experts, as Lucan asserts) versus the school affirmatively offering all children nut-based foods – even when some of those children are known to be nut-allergic, and when some of them could be as young as five or six years old. Moreover, while Lucan may be correct in stating that exposing kids to nuts more often could eventually reduce nut allergies across the board, doesn’t that justification rather cavalierly dismiss the concerns of kids who already have life-threatening nut sensitivities?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I did run Lucan’s argument past Lianne Mandelbaum, the mother of a highly nut-allergic child and an outspoken advocate for families with food-allergic kids. Predictably, she wasn’t too happy with Lucan’s proposal, telling me:
Food allergic parents are well aware that nut free classrooms cannot guarantee 100% safety from all possible forms of cross-contamination. However, a reasonable goal for food allergic children is to reduce their daily risk of a life threatening allergic reaction. Peanut protein is particularly robust and can last up to 110 days. Due to this nature of peanut/nut products, it can be more challenging for staff as well as other children to prevent the contamination of common surfaces in the classrooms, cafeteria, bathrooms, keyboards, etc. Let us remember that children, especially when they are young, often cannot protect themselves. Other children simply may not truly understand the potential dangers of exposing an allergen on another child. Therefore, the responsibility lies with the adults to protect the children that have not developed an adequate capacity yet to protect themselves.
At any rate, I really don’t mean to rake Lucan over the coals here. As I said at the outset, he and I couldn’t be more aligned in our views about classroom and school junk food. I applaud him for taking an active role in trying to improve his own child’s school food environment, and I wish him every success in that effort. And the fact that his child is in an affluent private school, in which the administration has already allowed him to express his concerns with other parents, signals to me that he’s likely to make great strides.
But I’d love to hear your thoughts, too. What do you think about ending nut bans at school to allow these healthy foods in? And have you ever encountered the issue I describe above, in which another parent’s “healthy” snack offering isn’t so healthy at all – but they have no idea this is the case? How did you handle that tricky discussion? Let me know in a comment below.
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