For Sale: Our Kids’ Health

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?

Comments (12)

  • That’s awesome Anne! I don’t think it’s right what the school is doing/deciding and I think that healthy food SHOULD be a part of school agendas and they should be leaving that type of cafeteria food for the high school kids who should know how to make healthy food choices on their own!

  • You took the words right out of my mouth! I’m tired of the pizza fundraisers, the fun fairs loaded with junk food, teachers handing out candy as treats and cupcakes and junk being brought in for kids birthdays. I don’t feed my kids that way and I tell them not to participate but their kids! They see a cupcake and they jump on it as if they’re life depends on it. This is one of the things stopping me from joining the parent council at my kids school, but if I want to see change I guess I’d better get in there! Well written article Anne! 🙂

  • Anne, what a great article. You are right, pizza or hot dog days in moderation are acceptable but other healthier fundraising options are out there and should be used, particularly when there are so many dietary restrictions arising in schools.

    Stacey Paul
  • Thanks Jason! In Ontario there actually *is* legislation to make sure that food being sold by the school is mostly healthy… the rules are found in PPM 150. Unfortunately a lot of school bodies and parent councils don’t know about or don’t understand the rules that they are supposed to be compliant with.

    Anne Radcliffe
  • Thanks Tabitha! FYI Food should never be handed out as a reward by a school. That’s explicitly stated in the HWDSB nutrition policy… I think it may also be in PPM 150 too! If so, you have grounds to object to that.

    Anne Radcliffe
  • Thanks Stacey! You are right, there are some excellent fundraising options… Our school had a danceathon one year, and it made a pile of cash!

    Anne Radcliffe
  • LOVE this! Good job! I feel the same way about selling chips, cookies and muffins in the school cafeteria. They’re ok in moderation but no one is policing it. Any child can take in his/her allowance and eat nothing but chips for lunch in elementary school. We need people like you making a stand so that there are always healthy alternatives available and then we need education so kids know better. No one is going to be watching their choices during the rest of their lives.

  • I’m only one person! Hopefully others will step forward where they see a need and we will make changes one school at a time. If a person reads this and is inspired to help make a difference, I’m truly honoured. Thanks Laura!

    Anne Radcliffe
  • Our school has pizza day once a month. It’s optional if you want to buy it for kids or not.
    They also have the odd hot dog fundraiser.
    The school’s biggest fundraiser is chocolate bars. I’m not a big fan of that one. It’s the full size Cadbury bars. The school make a really good profit on this. Personally I would rather give a donation to the school instead of selling the chocolate bars, but we already pay a pretty large tuition bill to attend the school.

  • I would contact your Board of Education and your local Superintendent. I work at a primary school in Ontario and all food related fundraising was banned. We did have a hot lunch program but that went to wayside as well. All juice machines were pulled as well. Even contacting your local MP or newspaper may help. Sometimes you need to bring those simple statistics to a larger group of people to get change. Best of luck!

    Brandee Head
  • Thanks for the advice! I’m pretty sure the Super is aware of the situation, as apparently a lot of the complaints about us trying to restrict pizza went to him. 🙂 We wanted to try to be flexible and work with parents for better nutrition first.

    Anne Radcliffe
  • We do Pizza once a month which is also their day to wear their own clothes (not uniform). We also have a milk program that I support, I like that they get milk everyday. I would be upset if they were trying to pawn pizza and fro yo every week as well. I think Pita Pit may be a bit adventurous for elementary school. I find my kids like plain meat on pita, and not any of the healthy toppings. They will eat them deconstructed but not wrapped together.

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