Several weeks ago, I led a conversation at my son's school about healthy eating. Parents, teachers, and administrators participated. After I made a case for better nutrition, one father voiced concern about becoming a "Food Nazi."
Should he deny his child the package of Oreos and bag of chips with lunch? -- a lunch that might also include yogurt cup, juice box, and jelly sandwich (peanut butter forbidden in the nut-free school).
Regarding the cookies, I thought, when did dessert become an everyday (indeed, every meal) expectation? Regarding the remaining items, I thought, when did dessert become the main course, the side, the snack, and the beverage?
The described lunch was a sugar feast. The sandwich bread (white as it turned out) would have been essentially refined starch -- i.e., long chains of sugar. The chips would have added more starch (i.e., more sugar), and the jelly, even more sugar.
Obscene additional amounts of sugar would have come from the cookies, juice, and yogurt (together, these three items alone could provide 2 -- or even as much as 4 -- times more sugar than the World Health Organization would recommend even a moderately active 8-year-old consume in an entire day). This is to say nothing of the artificial colors, flavors, fillers, stabilizers, and other additives the processed products would contribute (nutritional concerns in their own right).
The multi-course "dessert lunch" provided from home also would not account for any school-provided foods and beverages that might additionally be available to -- even foisted on -- the child during the school day. Think candy, chips, cake, soda, juice drinks, and frozen treats that might come from class parties, bake sales, after-school programs, special events, and in vending machines.
I believe that parents should be the ones making dietary decisions for their children and, ideally, parents should strive to make the healthiest choices. Physicians might inform healthy choices but regardless, schools should not sabotage the potential for good health with the provision of junk.
Children benefit from real foods -- i.e., whole foods from living botanical plants (providing sustenance and supporting health) not artificial products from industrial processing plants (increasing risk and supporting academic, behavioral, and medical problems).
The concentrated sugars, refined starches, and added ingredients that come from artificial products are biologically active substances that can cause harm. Schools need parental permission -- and physician authorization -- to administer other biologically active substances with the potential to harm (i.e., medications), and parents -- potentially guided by physicians -- must have greater input with regard to school-provided foods.
Unhealthy foods should definitely not be celebrated or supplied by schools. Think candy, chips, and sugary drinks, for instance. Conversely, healthy foods should be encouraged and made available. Think, for example:
• Fresh fruit
• Vegetables cut into fun shapes (perhaps with different kinds of hummus for dipping)
• Soy or sunflower butter on whole-grain crackers or as "ants on a log" (i.e., on celery with raisins)
• Waters flavored and colored with fresh or frozen fruits
• Trail mix or granola (i.e., whole grains, seeds, dried fruits, and -- depending on school policy -- nuts)
• Whole fruits smashed, molded, and frozen into "popsicles"
Working with local farmers and thinking creatively about sourcing can bust the myth that healthy foods need to be expensive (they don't). And consistently offering kids healthier items can establish (or re-set) their tastes, habits, and preferences for the better.
Parents should work with teachers and administrators to get healthy foods into schools and healthy-food education onto school curricula. Some parents may still decide to provide cookies and chips as part of a sugar lunch for their own children, and that is their right. But schools should not exacerbate unhealthy parental decisions, or undermine healthy ones. Schools need to create an environment to build the healthiest possible children across the board. To do so, they may need directing by vocal parents (like me... or you).
We need not be food Nazis to do the right thing for kids, we just need to be more-responsible forepersons.
* I have no real of perceived conflicts of interest