The ruffling of feathers began with a few voices expressing concern about kids’ health. Specifically, it was about the sheer volume of cheap pizza and frozen yogurt being shilled to children at our school and how much of it was being sold to Junior and Senior Kindergarteners—some as young as three—who were ordering three slices of pizza at one nutrition break.
This was nearly double their recommended intake of sodium for the entire day.
Every week for sure–and twice on some weeks—these foods are making their way into the school’s front doors under the pretext of necessary fundraising. How much is being collected? In this school of about 300 kids (90 of them enrolled in just the full-day Kindergarten), well in excess of $1,000 per week.
And that is just for pizza.
A Health Issue for Technology’s Sake?
The Parent Council insisted the money was for the purchase of necessary technology–iPads, in particular. There are grandiose plans here to get an iPad into the hands of every 4th grader by 2016. But to accomplish this lofty goal we’re selling foods that are cheap, high-sodium, high-fat, high-calorie, and of low nutritional quality.
Some of the justifications makes me shake my head: “Everybody’s gotta eat. Nobody wants to make lunches 5 days a week. What does a little pizza hurt?” Well, a “once in a while” treat is fine–if the diet is good at home. But, as some of the teachers at our school have observed, there are many kids in schools who are going hungry or have inadequately nutritious lunches most days of the week.
Low-income is an issue, but so is the siren call of convenience foods in middle-class double-income houses. In addition to being speedy, convenience foods are optimized to be addictive and tasty, and so they’re loaded with sugar, salt and fat.
Statistics Canada says that a staggering 33% of Canadian children between the ages of 5 and 17 are overweight or obese, and childhood incidences of serious, lifelong diseases like diabetes are running rampant. While that is concerning even on its own, it’s becoming more and more apparent that our diet has a huge effect on our brain—for better or worse.
High levels of junk food have been shown to reduce cognitive abilities in rodents in as little as three weeks and impair other brain functions. People who are obese and suffer other metabolic disorders caused by an unhealthy diet (such as type II diabetes) have higher incidences of depression and serious mental illness. Having a diet deficient in omega-3 fatty acids has been associated with increased risk of attention-deficit disorder, dyslexia, dementia, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Our brain needs a good diet, rich in the fatty-acid Omega 3s (DHA and EPA) and micronutrients, to function at its best. Studies in the UK, Australia and Indonesia have shown that “healthy brain” diets may improve behaviour and cognition substantially.
Peer Pressure and Exclusionism
A small war is now being waged at our school between the parents who want to continue doing weekly pizza and yogurt and the ones who don’t. Parents against it not only include those who are concerned about kids’ health, but also many people who feel like they are pressured to purchase the item on a weekly basis. They either must comply or are forced to explain to a small child why their friends gets to eat the frozen yogurt and they don’t. And then there are kids, like my own son, who are unable to participate due to allergies, dietary or religious reasons. There is no healthy or safe alternative offered to these kids.
My son’s teacher and I brought the matter before council, bringing in alternative suggestions like Pita Pit and a hot lunch program, and we were shouted down. Options which are healthy and inclusive just don’t bring enough funds in to justify the effort—the cut to the school is only about 10%.
Your Chance to Get Involved
The pushback on selling healthy food to kids in the school is astonishing. We’ve had people call the school board superintendent to complain. People have complained about the principal. People have threatened to petition to change the health and nutrition policy to ensure that pizza can be sold as often as they want.
Why would we want to dismantle legislation designed to offer nutritious food to kids on school grounds?
We’re fighting back; a few concerned parents, my son’s teacher, and I—we’ve started a nutrition committee. We have no hidden agenda. We just want kids to eat well. Kids who are well-fed and aren’t loaded with sugar and salt are healthier and perform better in school. But that’s only the first step.
A nutrition committee can do so much more than enforce a nutrition policy. We want to allocate funds towards fresh fruit and vegetable snacks for kids to take if they’re hungry—no questions asked about their household status or needs. We want to create classroom events where kids can get exposure to unusual foods that they might not have eaten (or won’t try) at home.
People who are passionate about this can teach kids how to understand the relationships between food and their bodies; we can teach them to plan and prepare their own healthy meals, from store to plate. We can work together to reduce childhood obesity and diabetes, and improve people’s quality of life.
And fundraising? It doesn’t have to involve food at all.
If your school doesn’t have a nutrition committee, and you believe healthy eating is both important and a right for all kids regardless of their household income, please consider asking your school to form one. Better yet, get involved… and help shape a child’s attitude towards a good diet—for life.
How often is your school pushing pizza, and how do you feel about it?