Many of us eat together with our children (and therefore, control the menu!) for two meals a day - breakfast and dinner. When it comes to school lunch, everything is different.
At the dinner table it is easy to encourage kids to try different foods, to eat their vegetables, or to place their napkins in their laps. By eating together as a family, you can shape your children’s eating habits according to your priorities and principles. You can also role model these behaviors so your children see you doing the very acts you expect of them.
School lunch is different.
For starters, you are not there. Children sit with friends - not family – and the voice of parental guidance is muted by chides of peer pressure. Few lunchroom conversations involve how delicious the food is, where the food came from, how it was prepared, or what fruits are in season this month (unless you visit a WT Café lunchroom!).
Instead, comments and requests for lunch “trades” involve jokes about how certain foods look or what bodily fluids they resemble. Uninformed children often place misguided emphasis on packaged treats and desserts, chips and fried foods, colored and flavored drinks, or cleverly marketed products they see on TV (like the rainbow “fruit” roll up with the printed sayings).
Peer pressure in the lunchroom rears its ugly head as early as first grade.
Of course, you can teach your kids how to effectively manage negative peer influences – that’s not the big problem here. If that were the only contributing factor to the toxic food environment in many schools today, this issue would have been solved years ago with good parenting alone.
The real problem with the school food environment is that it’s not just kids that condone unhealthy food choices – it’s also parents, teachers, and schools themselves. All three constituents take different actions that together foster a negative food climate in many schools today:
· Parents continue to pack unhealthy and high fat, high sodium foods for their child’s lunch or class snacks and bring in sugary, store-bought desserts for birthday celebrations. (In fact, some schools now insist on store-bought birthday goodies rather than homemade, which limits many of the more nutritious choices).
· Teachers continue to use candy and treats as reward for good classroom behavior. (Research on child eating habits has shown that foods used as "rewards" become more desirable to children than if they had not been used as rewards. So, when candy is used as a reward, children come to like it more and want it more than they would otherwise.)
· Schools continue to sell highly processed snack foods and sodas in vending machines or school stores because the profits are too significant to ignore ($2.3 billion worth of snack foods and beverages are sold annually in schools nationwide according to the National Academy of Sciences, and many school districts make millions each year from the proceeds).
It’s a shame that so many high calorie, highly processed, and unhealthy foods are still easily accessible in schools. It’s also a shame that so many authority figures are allowing (if not encouraging) this situation to continue. These environmental influences negatively affect children’s relationship with food.
The food children have access to is the food children eat.
When a school welcomes unhealthy foods on its campus, it sends mixed messages to kids about what they should and shouldn’t eat. It’s a downward spiral….you set parental expectations for your children at home, but those are contradicted by what your kids are told is socially desirable from their friends, what they are rewarded with by their teachers, or what is easily accessible to them on the school campus. No wonder so many kids today have picky eating habits, despite parents’ best efforts to teach otherwise! What can you do to change the food environment in your children’s schools?
Make Lunch Matter.
That means taking matters into your own hands, using your local school relationships or social media as a forum for change, and demanding that your schools and school districts hold themselves to higher standards.
Texas Mom, Bettina Siegel, recently did just that. Bettina (mom of an 8 and 12 year old) started an online petition on March 6, 2012 over the use of “pink slime” in the National School Lunch Program. “Pink slime” is a low-cost beef filler (made from parts of the cow not otherwise consumed by humans and then treated with ammonium hydroxide gas to kill bacteria). In just 20 short days, three of the four plants where this filler is made were forced to shut down due to public outcry over use of the ingredient.
If one Mom forced this kind of sweeping change in less than a month’s time, imagine what the rest of us can do!
We need more leaders for the fresh and healthy food movement, so our collective voices carry loud and strong in schools across this country and help drive the school lunch reform we so desperately need. Read more about this recent petition and what you can do to lead change in your local school lunch programs by clicking here.
It’s funny about change – it can start anytime, anywhere, by anyone. The important thing is that it starts at all.