School Food Regulation Won’t Take the Cake

School Food Regulation Won’t Take the Cake

HBO’s Weight of the Nation aired in 4 hour-long segments in mid-May (watch here if you missed it). Despite the importance of this show’s message, the first two hours had so many talking heads all saying the same thing that it started sounding like that weird guidance counselor from South Park (“Uh, fat is baaad, mmmkay? … So, uh, don’t get fat, mmmkay?”) The segment on child obesity really delivered, though, ripping the food industry for their relentless marketing of crap to kids in the way that only a network which is paid for by viewers – not sponsors – can do.

The show also noted that school meals are what they are because of underfunding by the government, a favorite topic of mine, and made the point, as I have in the past, that schools should not have to use money intended for educational expenses to instead cover nutritional expenses.

Speaking of government, the federal Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 sets new nutritional and other requirements for school meals, many of which go into effect with the start of school in the fall. The most highly publicized part of the Act was the last-minute maneuvering by some in Congress to continue to count pizza as a vegetable to meet nutritional requirements for meals.

Now, however, Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado has introduced his “SLICE” - School Lunch Improvements for Children's Education - Act, which would count pizza as, well, pizza; the Congressman is hoping his proposal can become part of the reauthorization of the Farm Bill currently being negotiated by Congress.

A less heavily publicized aspect of the HHFK Act is the requirement that the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees school meals, issue far reaching nutritional regulations for all food sold at school, not just for the food in the federally subsidized school meal programs. For the first time, the USDA will regulate all food which is sold competitively with those programs, including cafeteria a la carte lines, school vending machines, school stores, and most school fundraising sales.

California has passed legislation addressing some competitive foods, and some school districts like SFUSD have strict Wellness Policies in place which set even higher standards. However, a 2007 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest reported that “only twelve states (24%) have comprehensive school food and beverage nutrition standards that apply to the whole campus and the whole school day at all grade levels” and that “two-thirds of states have weak or no policies.” The proposed rule from the USDA is expected to be made public by mid-June.

One area the new USDA regs will not be addressing is food sent from home not intended for sale - that is, student lunch boxes, and food for sharing at parties and celebrations. Despite the impression created by a widely publicized misunderstanding in a North Carolina preschool classroom in February, in which a 4 year old child’s lunch from home was thrown away and replaced with a school lunch of chicken nuggets, there is no federal regulation of what a parent can send from home for their own child’s lunch.

While teachers or parents may look askance at the contents of some kids’ lunch boxes, those contents are generally considered a family’s prerogative. It’s a different story, though, when the issue is food to be shared; that’s a hot topic of discussion among parents on nutrition-related blogs. On one side are parents who want to send cupcakes to school for their child's birthday.

On the other side are parents who feel the constant parade of cake and classroom treats is helping drive the obesity epidemic; parents whose children have food allergies or other medical issues which make that cupcake a threat to the child’s health; parents who are concerned about the possibility of food dyes (blue frosting, anyone?) and other additives in store-bought treats; parents who can’t afford to send in cupcakes for the whole class, but who feel pressure to do so because their child was served a cupcake on everyone else's birthday.

One of the most active sites for such discussion is The Lunch Tray blog, run by Houston mom Bettina Elias Siegel. She told me,

I certainly never set out to become the voice of the anti-school-treat movement but, like a lot of my readers, I think what happens is that you reach a natural tipping point. You start out feeling – correctly, in my opinion – that treats and a bit of junk food here and there are no big deal, and a normal part of childhood. You enjoy taking your kids out for ice cream or baking cookies or bringing in cupcakes to school to celebrate a birthday. But then as your kids get older, it starts to seem that at virtually every event at which more than two children gather (piano recital, soccer game, dance competition, scout meeting), someone inevitably is handing your child a juice pouch and a bag of chips or a donut. What you used to think of as a “treat” is being thrust upon your child almost daily.

And I think that’s why the issue of treats in the classroom strikes such a nerve with me and my readers. We’d like to view our schools as an ally in our efforts to keep kids healthy, or at the very least not as an adversary. And then we grow dismayed by the amount of sugar and other junk our kids get from school, without any parental consent or oversight.

So the problem is not just that school party food is such junk, it’s that it is happening so often. Some people say, “Why shouldn’t I send cupcakes for my child’s birthday? One cupcake is not going to make anyone obese!” Texas has gone so far as to guarantee a parent’s “right” to send cupcakes to their child’s classroom through the Safe Cupcake Amendment. But it is never just that one cupcake; it has become a constant stream of treats.

An SF parent described her child’s school party experience this way:

At least once a week there are treats handed out. This week was the topper: On Tuesday, Valentine's Day, my daughter brought home about 30 pieces of candy after eating several cookies + cupcakes + a Capri Sun. Wednesday was a birthday for another child whose parents provided large cupcakes + Capri Suns + goodie bags with candy. Then on Thursday, her teacher had an ice cream sundae party for the students who had memorized their times tables. That was in one week! I know our Principal tries her best in her beginning-of-the year letter to the school community to encourage healthy treats. But the parents go ahead and bring them anyway. It's tough on teachers whose students' parents show up with the trays of cupcakes in the morning. What are they supposed to do, say "Sorry, no treats" and watch the birthday kid's eyes well up with tears?

The Weight of the Nation documentary focused a lot on the idea of personal responsibility to help combat obesity. However, as one of the anti-classroom-cupcake parents told me, her school's laissez faire policy on classroom treats undermines her attempts to model personal responsibility around food. She said,

I'm taking personal responsibility by feeding my family healthy. And it often means making difficult choices, like saying "No" when they ask for yet another treat, refusing to buy them Gatorade at the grocery store, and setting the alarm for 5 a.m. so I have time to pack them a nutritious lunch. But that's also why I get frustrated when other people load up my kids with junk, which happens frequently--including at school. It makes me feel like my efforts are constantly being undermined by well-meaning parents, teachers, friends and family members.

There has to be a middle ground between never allowing students to have any kind of food-based party at school, and the junk food free-for-alls which happen all too often. Some classrooms have had success with limiting parties to one per month, for every child whose birthday falls within that month. Others stress celebrations that are non-food based, such as doing a special craft project in lieu of a food orgy.

No one wants to be the Grinch who stole parties, but many parents are fed up with having other adults, some of whom they have never even met, constantly putting junk food in front of their kids. The best option for those parents may be to try to offer alternative, non-food school celebrations which are even “funner” (as the kids say), and which bring more parents into the school to help out, so that parties are not just dumped on the teacher. It's easy to see why the default is a soda, cupcakes and chips bash, if a teacher doesn't have an extra pair of hands or two to help out at the party.

Next year, instead of a Valentine's Day sugar blowout, wouldn't it be great if families sent six-packs of annuals (pansy, Iceland poppy, marigold) to class instead of cupcakes and candy, and students planted them around school as a way to show their love of Mother Earth?

We all work, we are all busy, but we make time for the things which are important to us. Parents who want to change the party culture at their school need to make time to demonstrate that there are other ways to celebrate besides mindless junk food inhalation. That's the kind of lesson schools should be teaching, and one that can benefit children their whole lives.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002, shares what she has learned at, and always enjoys a good cupcake. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.