Dear American School Principals, I am a pediatric registered dietitian in Laguna Beach, California, and have spent my professional life teaching parents what and how to feed their children. I am not a nutrition extremist; I believe in birthday cakes on birthdays, candy on Halloween and dessert on occasion. The last several years have felt like a steep uphill battle because much of the good work I do to build healthy eating habits in the home is sabotaged by unhealthy food being given to children everywhere they turn. The banks offer lollipops. The grocery stores hand out cookies. And parents and coaches now bring sugary snacks to soccer and baseball games, as I reported in "Soccer Snack Insanity."
But the most disheartening trend I have seen is in our American schools. Kids are given food for every conceivable occasion. Every week, parents from all over our country flood my inbox with concerns about their schools giving their kids sugary foods in the classroom. Foods like ice cream, candy and cookies are showing up for every birthday and holiday imaginable. Let's do some math. If there are an average of 25 students in an American classroom, that is a lot of celebratory cupcake parties throughout the school year. And let's face it, most of your students are having birthday parties outside of school with plenty of sugar.
And are you aware that candy is sometimes used as a teaching tool? I have heard from many parents that if students answer a question correctly, they are rewarded with gummy candy or chocolate pieces. How can schools teach and promote a nutrition and health curriculum and then turn around and use food so inappropriately? This is sending the wrong message to the exact audience at the exact age where we have an opportunity to establish a lifetime's worth of healthy eating habits.
I am asking you to make two simple changes. First, set a non-caloric birthday celebration policy. Stickers, books and creative art projects can be just as celebratory as cupcakes, cookies and candy. In honor of student birthdays, ask them to donate their favorite book to the school library or gather input from all students in the classroom on a charitable donation in honor of birthdays. Second, you must ban food incentives for correct answers. Correct answers should add to a child's self-esteem, not their waistline. Even if your students are thin, too much sugar in their growing bodies is not nutritious. This is not new news. You have the power to set policy in your school. I am asking you to do so for the nutritional sake of your students.
If you have any questions, please contact me. I would be happy to discuss this matter further with you and will help in any way I possibly can.
Melanie R. Silverman MS, RD, IBCLC