Friday, February 1, 2013

The Friday Question: Much Ado About Junk Food?

Hot Cheetos: a favorite snack provided by parents at my son's school.

I'm Eco-novice. Kindergarten snack is my nemesis.

Can I gripe here for a moment?

Each day my son gets a snack, provided by a parent, at the end of afternoon Kindergarten (noon to 3:30 pm). Parents take turns bringing snacks. Originally, snack happened during class, but then the teacher decided that snack was taking up too much class time, and moved the snack to the end of the day. I think this is kind of odd all by itself. Why hand out a snack after class when each parent can just bring their own snack or take their kid home for a snack? The long and short of it is, I get to see the snack my son receives every day. He usually eats it in the car on the way home.

Yesterday he came out with a fruit roll-up as well as a bag of pink lemonade to drink. I glanced at the packaging and ingredients of the fruit roll-up:
Fruit Roll-ups: Strawberry Naturally Flavored (Fruit Flavored Snack)
Ingredients: Pears from Concentrate, Corn Syrup, Dried Corn Syrup, Sugar, Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil, Contains 2% or less of: Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Acetylated Monoglycerides, Fruit Pectin, Dextrose, Malic Acid, Vitamin C, Natural Flavor, Color (red 40, yellows 5 & 6, blue 1)
My main objections to this fruit snack are:
  1. Too much sugar, including corn syrup, which I avoid all together
  2. Hydrogenated oils
  3. Artificial colors
See, I'm not even going to address the impact on the environment of this snack. Let's just focus on children's health for the moment. Isn't that nifty how the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th ingredients are all sugar? Good thing they split those up so sugar or corn syrup wasn't the first ingredient! You know, shopping as I do almost exclusively outside conventional grocery stores, I had kind of forgotten that this type of kid-marketed junk "food" even existed.

If this were a once in a while thing, I would look the other way, as I generally do when it comes to food other people serve my kids. But almost every day he exits school with a snack like this. Never mind that school-wide newsletters often come home reminding parents to bring only healthy foods low in sugar to school for celebrations and snacks. I remember the day I watched a dad walk a case of blue Gatorade to the classroom to hand out as the kids left. Several parents have brought Little Caesars pizza. Several others have brought popsicles. I do not consider any of those things "snacks." I'm not sure if parents are trying to one-up each other or if this is a popularity contest or what. These snacks make school lunch look good.

I now have a stash of granola bars, Annie's gummy rabbits, and 100% juice drinks in the trunk of my car that I trade with my son for the snacks that are unacceptable to me. Sometimes there are willing exchanges, sometimes forced trades (and even tears shed) depending on how affronted I am by the particular snack. Sometimes I wonder what my son must think when I tell him that the snacks another parent brought are not good for his body and I'm not going to let him eat them. I worry that eventually he'll say something impolite when someone offers him the snack.

Several times, I have suggested to my son's teacher that we just eliminate the snack all together, since it's at the end of school anyway. I have also suggested that she print on the snack calendar that snacks should be as healthy as possible and low in sugar. Neither has happened.

What is so painful to me is that my son attends a school that is predominantly low-income Hispanic immigrants. I used to teach this exact population and I know the statistic: half of these kids will have type 2 diabetes by the time they are adults. My Hispanic father-in-law is borderline type 2 diabetic. I am sure that many of these kids will be overweight by the end of elementary school. How can all these parents really think these are acceptable "snack" foods for their children?

But I try to tread carefully. Because even typing this I fear I come off as an obnoxious elitist snob. I am one of two white parents in the class, and also probably one of the better educated parents in the class. I'm not quite sure which is more condescending: to blame the parents for making such poor choices, or to blame the food industry for duping parents into thinking these products are "foods" acceptable for their children's consumption. Is it unrealistic to ask parents to make better choices in the face of such poor choices? Does it promote too much of a nanny state or is it too paternalistic to say we shouldn't allow such foods to be marketed and sold? Am I overreacting to the ingredients of my son's daily snacks?

So, Boothers, I ask you:
  • How worked up do you get about junk food offered to your children? 
  • How would you handle this situation? 
  • What uncomfortable children's food situations have you dealt with?
Photo credit: Calgary Reviews


Helena said...

My daughter's preschool does not provide food most of the time, and when it does, it's usually healthy stuff (for example, in the fall they had "apple day" where they all brought in apples and got to taste and compare different varieties), though there's the occasional cookie day (coming up for V-day, actually). However, parents usually bring in treats for their kids' birthdays, and usually it's cupcakes or cookies. I'm not thrilled about it, but I look the other way because it's not every day. I have gotten many comments from the teachers saying that they love my daughter's lunch and that it's the healthiest one they see--which I take as a compliment, but which also makes me a bit sad.

I'm not sure how I would handle the situation you describe, but it sounds to me like you're doing pretty well. I understand your worry that your son might say something impolite, as I have the same concern with my daughter, since she comes home asking why we don't have fruit roll-ups or other junk foods she sees in the other kids' lunches. I tell her we try to make healthy food choices, and while it's fine for everyone to make different choices for their families, we choose not to have those things in our home. So I'm hoping that the worst thing she might say is that XYZ food is not a healthy choice--which, really, most parents probably know deep down, so it's not like that's earth-shattering.

As far as uncomfortable situations, we haven't run across too many yet since she's only four, but give it time.... :p

Alice said...

I feel you pain, sista! When my oldest was in 1st and 2nd grade, there were parent-brought snacks. I just let go of the stuff that was non-organic or whatnot but I did complain to the teacher when one parent brought in Doritos for a week.

More recently, both boys have snack after soccer practice. Again, is that really necessary? They are LEAVING after all. Parents could just provide their own snack of choice. Gatorade was also the drink of choice - full of flame retardants and all. I never said anything but your post makes me think about approaching the team coach or team parent at the beginning of the season and ask if we can do away with or significantly limit snack for health and environmental reasons (yes, it ALL comes wrapped in non-recyclable plastic, doesn't it).

Eco Yogini said...

since i don't have children- i'm not sure how i would react either... but you seem to have more patience than i would!

I do spend quite a bit of time in schools for my job though, and interestingly I've noted that one school board has banned all forms of junk food. to the point that if parents pack it as a snack, the kids aren't allowed to eat it.

i do think, though, that would probably require the teacher to keep a stash of healthy food on hand.... which honestly wouldn't be a bad idea (but would cost money).

I guess, my first instinct is to chat with the teacher again... and then go to the principal. that said- perhaps it isn't the most peaceful approach :S

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

Helena, I like the way you talk to your daughter about your choices. I usually tell my son it's not good for his body, but I think I could do a better job of explaining about healthier and less healthy choices, and just different choices people make. Of course, soon enough I imagine I'll run into his desire to just be like everyone else.

Alice, absolutely let's get rid of "snack" when we don't need it. So much waste.

Eco Yogini, having been a teacher, and also because I very much like my son's teacher, I am reluctant to go AROUND the teacher. I think she is more interested in building community with parents (definitely important too) than enforcing a snack code which she may or may not feel strongly about. When I taught, I felt fine about no allowing my kids to eat junk food -- but I was the authority figure, and I had to deal with the kids all day, and felt comfortable telling parents what they could do. That's just not my role anymore (sadly, how I love to be in charge!). The more I think about it, the more I feel like I'm just going to have to deal with it for now, and work for a different school culture, perhaps more parent education about nutrition, or maybe even a junk food ban at the school level.

Eco Yogini said...

@Betsy: ahhh- see i knew i was missing essential "rules" around parent-teacher interactions since i don't have children.
that sounds like a great plan to me :)

SustainaMom said...

I was one of those parents that didn't realize how unhealthy our food is... until my son started having behavior problems that we tied back to artificial colors and flavors (which are often made from petroleum, nice, huh?). As we began to eliminate those ingredients, we also found out about so many other faults with our food supply.

We keep a stash of treats in the kindergarten classroom for my son to eat when the other kids are getting cupcakes, etc. His teachers have been very supportive and patient. I know this is not convenient for them. (Although I guarantee it is more convenient than his meltdowns.)

As he gets older, I worry more about the social aspect of it all. But right now, we just say he has some allergies and move on.

Every time I open my mouth I worry how I'm coming across but also thinking I wish someone had told me two years earlier. So if anyone seems interested, I mention, "Yeah, food dyes are made from petroleum... one, i forget which color, is a neurotoxin.... that preservative (in the nuggets my kid loved as a toddler) is suspected to cause stomach cancer...."

Unless you have a health problem, unless you are a health nut, you just don't know that our food is literally not safe. And I don't know how to balance telling people what they might like to know without sounding like the crazy food lady who judges them for not eating organic, whole wheat, homemade, whatever....

If anyone else wants more info about avoiding these foods (some of which aren't required to be included on labels), check out Someone here told me about the group when I wrote about my son having problems and I'm extremely grateful. I'd heard of the program before but they sounded like a cult and I was skeptical. Seeing the change in my son made me a believer.... The parents on the Facebook group have some heartbreaking stories about their children's behavior and pain prior to connecting it with diet.

Anonymous said...

What about each child bringing in their own snack each day? That is how my kids school handles snacks after preschool.

Anonymous said...

That is really annoying. I wonder what those kids eat at home. I would personally feel embarrassed to bring junk to the class on my snack day! My kid eats crap at home sometimes but that's my choice, and I know that he's getting balanced nutrition. Right now I'm glad my son is only 2.

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

Yes, Janine, I do wonder. But I think there is a little bit of a seeking popularity business going on -- like they are letting their child pick out the treat and the kid wants to bring the BEST possible treat -- b/c I brought 5 pounds of cuties to a class party (one of the only non-junky options, and the only FRESH produce anyone brought) and the kids DEVOURED them.

SustainaMom, I remember your post about your son's diet. My husband once suggested I tell the teacher that my son reacted adversely to chemicals like artificial colors in food, which I think is probably true to some degree for ALL children -- but I hesitate to use excuses like allergies, behavior problems when I know some kids really suffer severely and have serious problems I do not wish to belittle. If my son DID have food issues like yours, I would not hesitate to insist on better choices for him.

I feel like you do about green info in general. I know stuff I think everyone and esp. every parent should know, but try to respect people's desire not to know. My own mother says she'll never read Omnivore's Dilemma etc. b/c she wants to be able to occasionally eat a McDonald's hamburger.

Kim @ The Soulicious Life said...

I hear you, girl! I blogged about my struggle with finding a suitable daycare (The SAD Truth about Childcare Diets: because of the food choices I kept coming up against. Ultimately, I was lucky and found a wonderful home daycare provider who doesn't mind me packing my two-and-a-half year old's lunch every day and delivering a half gallon of organic milk every Monday morning.

Regards your own situation, my suggestion is to approach the teacher with your concerns. My guess is you'll find you aren't the only parent with concerns!

My rule with my caregiver for snacks is nothing with high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oil. It pretty much gets rid of all the junk, and she sticks with fresh fruit, vegetables and the occasional Kashi granola bar.

The teacher could send out a memo to parents stating something like "Due to dietary concerns and the increasing importance of teaching and encouraging healthy eating habits, we are instituting a few simples rules to afternoon snack. Please do not provide any items containing hydrogenated oil or high fructose corn syrup. Below is a list of 15 healthy and welcomed snacks to get you going."

On the list, you could consider including: apple slices, cutie oranges, bananas, boxes of raisins, dried figs, hummmus and carrot sticks, organic fruit leather, fresh berries, granola, etc.

If more parents like us stand up, we can make these positive changes one at a time. Good luck!

Joy @ Joyfully Green said...

I'm with you 100% on this issue. Our school is on the healthy end of the spectrum, but occasionally for holidays, they load on the candy, junk food, and cheap plastic prizes. I chair the Green Team at my children's school, so I can bring up these issues with teachers and the administration and usually get some good results (the teachers don't like the junky snackfood either because it makes the kids hyper). But when it's already a done deal and our kids arrive home with junk, we limit what they can eat and what they can keep of junky toys.

My advice is to take it up with the teachers and administration in a non-confrontational way, pointing out that we all want what's best for the kids. It should be a school policy that junk food is a big "NO."

Mitty said...

I would approach this with the teacher in a different way. Is it really fair to ask low-income people to provide a snack for the entire class? In a given week, this may be a real burden, let alone if the parents feel they have to "keep up" with the other parents in what they provide. (I have a low-income friend who has trouble providing the snack the school requires just for her own child.) You might point out that some of the snacks are fairly elaborate--those individual foil drink packets aren't cheap. (Contrast pizza for all with homemade popcorn for all, or gatorade for all with apples from those 3 lb. bags for all--those packaged snacks cost a lot more.) If your child's teacher really has an interest in establishing good relationships with the parents, she might listen to this. I'm sure she doesn't want to impose a burden on the parents, and if there is great income disparity, that's what she's doing. In addition, you can legitimately point out that some children may have diet restrictions (even tho' your child doesn't), and that this can cause a problem for parents who have to wrest a snack from the youngster's grasp. I wouldn't talk with her about parents' bad choices--you won't come off well in the exchange, and there has to be a better way to educate than that. If you could find 3 more like-minded parents who have an hour during the day, you could offer to take turns teaching a weekly "make a healthy snack class" for the kids, but I realize that this is not the most practical suggestion.

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

Kim @ The Soulicious Life, I dearly wish the teacher would print a list of suggestions (and perhaps non-suggestions: please don't bring these) ON the snack calendar. I know she cares. Just this week she told me how proud she was that her son, after reading a popular novel, asked her what Pop Tarts are.

Joy @ Joyfully Green, I DREAM of having a Green Team at my son's school. I don't think green issues are on most of these folks' radar, honestly. But there is some kind of eco team in the upper grades -- must be a teacher who cares and maybe I can connect with him/her.

Mitty, that's a good point you make about the issue of cost, esp. since I do feel like people are trying to "keep up."

Christy said...

I'm lucky I guess, because we provide our children with their own snacks. Their school has always send home notices about healthy snack suggestions, which families can interpret or follow as they choose. There is also a big push for litterless lunches, which is good.

We are also lucky because many of the schools in our district are participating in a fruit and veggie program in which every student is provided with a healthy whole food every two weeks (usually something in season).

My beef is the hot food program, which parents pay for, by an outside company. Everything comes in plastic containers that most kids just throw away! When we did it one day a week for a year my daughter brought the containers home and we used them as craft containers, for sending baking and leftovers home with guests, etc. The main reason I stopped using them was for the plastic.

Lil said...

Pre-K snack fills me with dread. No nuts, no gluten (one child has a sensitivity), something my child really really likes, something that doesn't have to be refrigerated. I stress over it for weeks before it's my turn to bring something and inevitably I almost always end up bring fruit, which everyone devours, but which feels like a cop out to me, because, while the other parents bring pretty healthy options usually...sometimes they don't. While I live in fear of violating the rules, he came home with homemade M&M cookies yesterday and homemade heart shaped cranberry muffins with heart candies on top. I think I'm going to say screw it and send in my low-fat homemade coconut lime banana bread muffins next time.

But in your case, I would definitely speak up again and again, though I would probably couch it in terms of cost, as someone else already mentioned. Gatorade? Not cheap. Because I think more rules/restrictions aren't the answer, because neither you nor the teacher will be able to think of everything objectionable someone might bring in and then there will be ongoing kerfuffles while all the loop holes are explored.

BagInspiration said...

I agree that the whole concept of a snack to eat on the way home is ridiculous! I have a hard time with the fact that all kid activities somehow involve snacks and that most parents pick something that is easy to buy at the store and not necessarily something that is nutritious. Kids can go over 2 hours without eating!

That being said, you need tread lightly because you stated that the population is lower income. I am assuming that they have less time to prepare healthy snack, and less money to buy more expensive healthier snacks. Perhaps the teacher would let you come up with a list with price and nutrition comparisons that show the other parents healthier choices that they can easily purchase (making sure they are available at the closest grocery store) and that it won't cost them more. I think education is the only way to overcome this issue.


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