My twelve year old came home yesterday beaming with pride. In his sweaty palm was a crinkled up business card which he held up for me to see.
“Look, mom. The school holds a lottery for the kids who showed exemplary behavior, and I won.” It was hard not to share his excitement.
“What did you win, Ethan?” I asked. I envisioned a coupon for a free book or an activity of some sort.
“I can have a soda, and a piece of pizza or a small french fries at the corner deli.” My jaw dropped.
“They’re rewarding good behavior by hyping kids up on junk food and sugar.” I thought. I told him so, reassuring him that I was not going to take it away from him although I disapproved. He smiled at me. By now, my kids are used to my soapbox.
So let me climb up onto my perch, one more time (although it probably won’t be the last). I know that some teachers use candies as a form of reward. In California and Washington, kids were rewarded with a coupon for McDonald’s for their reading prowesses. When I worked in special ed classes, we would take the kids to eat in the cafeteria. My job was to encourage them to gobble up the food on their tray. The kids would pick at their food, and look away. I don’t blame them. I am not sure I would call the meals served in the cafeterias, well, food. Are we so removed from nature, that we see nothing wrong with feeding our kids this nutritional rubbish? Do we not think that there will be consequences to our children’s brain function and general health? Some of the same chemicals allowed in U.S. foods are specifically banned in Europe. Why? Because scientific evidence shows it affects negatively brain processes, children’s ability to concentrate, and their immune system. Until parents stand up to school administrators, food corporations, and their highly influenceable children, this problem will continue to exist. We are the solution.
We cannot ignore the fact that as of 2011, 11% of children ages 4-17 were diagnosed with ADHD in the U.S. The medical community is concerned that our children will be the first generation outlived by their parents. And for just cause, in United States, as of 2012, about 208,000 people younger than 20 years were diagnosed with diabetes, and 18% of children ages 6-11 were obese. It’s around the same figure for teens. According to Center for Disease Control and Prevention: “Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.” Food dyes such as Red 40, Yellow 5, and many others, according the Center for Science in the Public Interest, can be carcinogenic, and have severe effects on children’s behaviors and focus.
My children enjoy eating, and don’t seem to have any anxiety around food. I provide my family with a clean diet, close to what my grandmother would have eaten (Michael Pollan would be proud). I have not banned sugar from our house, but it most often takes the form of dark chocolate. Occasionally, we do go out for a treat. The rest of the time we know what goes in our mouths, because we make almost everything from scratch. My kids help with the menu planning, shopping, and cooking.
I’ve always believed that if I provide my children with information, they will be equipped to make the right decisions. For as long as I can remember, I have shared studies on nutrition and health with them ad nauseum. Ethan jokes he still has nightmares from the time we all watched Food, Inc.. I am also pretty sure he was the only kindergartener in his class who knew about dyes like Blue1, and Red40. I wasn’t trying to scare my children, but rather educate them. It worked, mostly. My kids are not perfect, but they read labels and know that it’s up to them.
Years ago my children proclaimed that they would rather eat good quality dark chocolate than the typical Halloween treats. Every year since, I have given them that choice. I offered my son a similar deal for the junk food reward he received at school.
“I can have anything I want?” he beamed.
“Yes, anything homemade,” I promised.
“I want Socca Pizza,” he stated without missing a beat.
I smiled. “An excellent choice!” I said.
You might be wondering what Socca Pizza is. It’s a chickpea crêpe, specialty of the South of France. We fill it with sautéed onions, spinach and creamy goat feta and bake it in the oven.
Solutions: Improving Nutrition for Our Children
I really believe that we can make a difference when we prioritize nutrition for our children. Small efforts go a long way. I recently met the owner of Real Food for Real Kids. This company caters healthy meals for childcare centers, schools, camps and families in the Toronto area. They not only deliver delicious healthy meal options, but they also educate the community and work closely with local food growers who uphold their holistic values. This business started because a parent was dissatisfied with the meal options in schools. Alice Waters’s Edible Schoolyard project is another fine example of how people can make a difference. They provide an edible curriculum to educate kids in kindergarten through high school. This organization makes a difference by showing kids the A-Z of healthy eating: growing your food, harvesting it, cooking it and eating it. Foodprints is another inspiring program located in Washington D.C.. They also provide public school children with the education they need about growing their own food, good nutrition and cooking.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of poor food choices that surround our children. When schools use food rewards to encourage good behavior, they are making the hill steeper for parents who encourage their kids to make good diet choices. No matter which battle you choose to fight, keep in mind that small changes over time can make a big difference.