I was talking with two friends a few months ago about their children’s schools and they said that overall they were happy with them. Then one woman added: “Except for all the candy.”
What candy? She explained that between the children’s birthdays, holiday celebrations, special events, bake sales, fundraisers, and teacher rewards, the kids eat candy at school all the time. Neither of these women restrict sugar much with their kids; in comparison I’m basically the Sugar Police. For them to complain means that their kids are getting a lot of it.
I’ve been sheltered from this. My kids go to an alternative school where there is, for the most part, a shared understanding around treats and sugar. There is an emphasis on what I think are very healthy snacks for most in-class events, which overall means low or no sugar, fruit-based, often gluten-free, often organic treats. In this world, I am not at all the Sugar Police. There’s no perfect unity – some teachers specify that they want no sugar, but most don’t say this; one parent’s candy kebabs were rejected (with offence) at a bake sale; another complained that the Toronto District School Board food and beverage policy should be followed more closely (ie. restrictively).
(Yes, the school board actually has a healthy food policy. It doesn’t apply to food offered at school free of charge, which would include all the in-class birthdays and celebrations, but the fact that it exists could provide some needed guidelines about what is acceptable. It rules out a lot of junk food and candy. Incidentally I disagree with some of it – the sugar, fat, and fibre requirements means many home-baked goods are not acceptable, while non-fat store-bought processed treats would be. I’d rather sink my teeth into a good homemade muffin any day.)
Where do I personally stand on all of this? Usually if I need to bring something healthy, it’s fruit kebabs or home-flavoured popcorn. For bake sales and special school events that are exempt from the food and beverage policy, I usually bring more traditional treats like cookies or brownies or pie (made with flour and sugar, but not piles of icing). I like baking, and I think occasional treats are a beautiful thing.
But I am plain relieved to be at a school where candy and sugar are not the norm simply because it isn’t healthy, and for most people, it’s difficult to resist. Fat, dairy, gluten – even alcohol and caffeine have their proponents who assert health benefits under certain circumstances – but there really are none for sugar.
My kids and I talk about food a lot at home, and I agree that what happens at home matters more than what happens at school. At the same time, our aspirations at home are made infinitely more reachable with a supportive surrounding community. When my son comes home on November 1 and complains that all of the kids have Hallowe’en treats at lunch except for him, I can ask, with some confidence, how many children he is talking about. The answer is invariably one or two, and my child realizes, without me saying much, that he is not alone and he feels more settled than if the answer were 20. (As do I; I don’t want my children to feel like social outsiders, and the need to belong is strong and important.) Then we can have a treat at home or not, depending on what works for us, but we aren’t pushed along by a social wave to eat in ways that not only aren’t good for us, but that we’re not truly choosing.
What the debate on sugar at schools tells me is that there is no common culture of food in the society I live in, so people find themselves having to create their own and yet really hunger for a like-minded community. I empathize with this and I’ve probably come to take for granted some of the things I don’t have to deal with at my kids’ school. While I would prefer that the cafeteria not sell chocolate milk or that packaged cookies not come with the monthly pizza lunch, it’s easier for me to roll with it because it’s not the norm in my kids’ school experience. If it were, I would consider it a detriment to my children’s health and would support efforts to change it.
There are many influential people in this camp, but I have to mention Jamie Oliver – have you heard impassioned Ted Talk/plea called “Teach Every Child About Food”? His thoughts on chocolate milk at school are quite hard-hitting and provoking.
Do you have any food for thought for me? I think about food quite a bit, and always want to learn more.