Loving Low-Sugar, Healthy Practices at School


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.



Banning Sugar In Schools Doesn’t Teach Healthy Habits

cake-pops-684163__180Not that long ago there was some discussion at the neighbourhood school my boys attend, how to greatly reduce the amount of sugar the students were consuming while on the premises.

A naturopathic doctor, also a parent to two young boys, gave a compelling presentation about the health and behaviour benefits to cutting back the white stuff, and successfully riled up the parent population with suggested action items.

I don’t know much, but I do know this: one sure-fire way to ignite controversy and polarize a group is to change-up the status quo.

Back when I was a kid, we’d walk the ten minutes to school in the pouring rain toting our umbrellas and like a growing snowball collect kids along the way and after school we’d knock on doors, ride bikes and play a good old fashioned game of kick the can. Not really, but you get the picture. We weren’t developing carpel tunnel syndrome by age 12 and taking selfies to document every minute of teenage angst.

When I was growing up sugar wasn’t the evil, it was fat and cholesterol. A few spandex clad mothers could be heard espousing the benefits of the 20-minute work-out, Jane Fonda and the AB Roller while pouring a healthy dollop of Lite salad dressing over iceberg lettuce. Butter, eggs, oils, red meat, all of it was eschewed until the mid 90s when Barry Spears revolutionize the diet world with The Zone and all of a sudden steak and eggs reclaimed their clout in the grocery cart.

As a kid I enjoyed donuts, candies and cupcakes.   Mrs. Dickson used to make the best cupcakes, with lots of icing and sprinkles so when it was her son’s birthday and she came into the classroom, I made sure to not be the last in the line-up. When a French teacher would toss out mini-sized chocolate bars for correct answers, we’d know that she was in a good mood and Mr. MacDonald used to let us pop balloons for prizes: a weekend with the class budgie, an afternoon in his chair, giant, over-sized chocolate bars our parents would never buy.

I used to peddle my bike to the corner store (about 15 minutes away and across a busy intersection) with my friends. We’d return our books to the library and then go the Village Market, to see how many Hot Lips and sour keys our change could buy us. A lot more than today’s pennies, that’s for sure.

But now I am a grown-up and I am the one making the decisions.

Do you want to know something? My shoulders are sore from the burden of expectations.

I have come a long way with not caring what people think about my parenting. The proof is in the pudding, I like to say, and I am playing the long game. I don’t always choose the healthiest or freshest or more local foods for my kids. In fact, last night they ate an entire party-sized pizza while they watched TV, and I basically ignored them to read the latest issue of Vanity Fair.

We have a treat bucket overflowing with candy and there it stays. My boys choose something from it once a day, but they could take it or leave it.   Sunday afternoons I bake something – cookies, brownies, macaroons, Hello Dollies – whatever the request but after the initial fanfare that accompanies the trays being pulled from the oven, the cookies will remain in the jar. Nibbled on, but never gorged. The piano teacher, friends popping by and play date guests are usually the ones to grab at the goods. For my kids, it’s part of the landscape, like the wallpaper. It’s just there.

Have you heard of Snowplow Parenting? If Helicopter parent was the term of yesteryear, then Snowplow parent is the term for now.

Snowplow parents: defined by some of the extremes they take in their children’s lives. When you take the snowplow route, you are teaching your child that someone will always step in to make things right, and therefore no initiative is required on the kid’s end.

That’s how I feel about removing sugar from schools. It doesn’t teach children how to make good choices it simply removes the obstacle for them. I am a believer that diets need to be balanced and healthy, and that includes sugar. It doesn’t mean scarfing down an entire box of Krispy Kremes (guilty!) on a regular basis but having a lollipop while watching a movie, is ok in my books.

It does get tricky in schools when parties and birthdays are celebrated with food, but that’s a learning opportunity in itself. Instead of banning sugary treats empower children with decision-making.  With parents and schools being more aware of and considerate of allergies, replacing birthday cupcakes for an non-edible treat (pencils, erasers, etc) is an obvious option.  There is also the option of a paper crown and singing Happy Birthday.  Simple.  But it’s about learning when and how to celebrate with treats.

It saddens me to see so many grown women (and some men) with unhealthy relationships with food, swinging from fad diet to fad diet, depriving themselves of food groups, binge eating; all of these behaviours leading to body image issues.

Here’s my question: With as much emphasis we’re placing on reducing sugar and getting our children active, why isn’t there more of an uproar over cut PE classes and revoked recesses (as punishment or to pack in more instructional time for core subjects)? Why do high school students only need one PE credit to graduate?

If I had things my way, we’d focus on healthy living where exercise is valued for more than just fitting into skinny jeans, where real food was consumed more than “fake food” and we would all chill out!