This guest blog comes from Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, an international speaker on the topic of pediatric feeding disorders. With more than 15 years of experience as a food therapist and eating coach for all children, including those with special needs, she is a go-to resource for anything related to kids and food.
In Aurora, CO, a preschool teacher in a public school setting would not allow 4 year-old Natalee Pearson to eat the Oreo cookies in her home-packed lunch. Instead, a note reprimanding the mother’s choice to include cookies was sent home to Natalee’s mother, who had also packed a sandwich and fruit. The note read:
“Dear Parents, It is very important that all students have a nutritious lunch. This is a public school setting and all children are required to have a fruit, a vegetable, and a healthy snack from home, along with milk. If they have potatoes, the child will also need bread to go along with it. Lunchables, chips, fruit snacks, and peanut butter are not considered to be a healthy snack. This is a very important part of our program and we need everyone’s participation.”
There is a difference between food police enforcing school policies and school staff providing food education to children and families in the school community. Children need a nutritious breakfast and lunch in order to do their best learning at school and proactive strategies to encourage a healthy food culture across all environments is a win-win for teachers, parents and students alike. But, requiring that “all children…have a fruit, vegetable, and a healthy snack from home, along with milk”…or insist that they include “bread if potatoes are part of the lunch” is not sound nutritional advice and just as important, it is a misguided policy.
Asking teachers to police lunch boxes creates an authoritarian lunch period where the rules are strict and the choices are few. What would happen if our own office supervisors inspected our adult lunches at the workplace, removing offending foods that did not match official work environment food policies? I doubt it would improve productivity. What purpose does it serve to judge what a child has brought in her lunchbox? It can’t make for a relaxing lunchtime if a child is concerned that her lunch doesn’t meet her teacher’s approval or she is told she cannot eat something her mother packed because it isn’t a “healthy” food. It’s counterproductive to setting the tone for learning for the rest of the day.
As a feeding specialist who visits school cafeterias and classrooms to support healthy, happy mealtimes, I work with children who develop anxiety around eating at school. The chaos of the school cafeteria is overwhelming for many children and it is not unusual for kindergartners and elementary school students to be allowed just twenty minutes to enter, eat and exit the cafeteria. Do we really need the added stress of the food police peering into our children’s packed lunches and dictate what can and cannot be eaten? How do we bridge the gap between encouraging healthy eating at home, school and in our communities, while still enjoying the occasional treat without shame?
Food education, not food policing, is the answer. It’s about creating a culture of wellness in our homes, schools and community events. Food education raises awareness of good nutrition and healthy habits, yet allows families to choose what specific strategies work best for them. The trend can be documented coast to coast, with positive results that both parents, teachers and community leaders can appreciate:
• In California, Chef Amanda Mascia of the Emmy-award winning television show ‘The Good Food Factory,’ taught over 500 children from neighboring Skyline Elementary the science of hard boiling an egg while they learned to make (and eat) egg salad. A leader in her community, Amanda holds “Healthy Cooking Assemblies” while whipping up brain boosting smoothies for over 100 kids at a time. Amanda’s discovered that “kids are EXCITED to cook and when they are excited to cook, they are excited to eat. Schools are a perfect place to get kids involved in the cooking process, we like to think of healthy cooking as science that you can EAT!”
• Slow Food Denver’s Seed to Table program fostered opportunities for school children to cultivate produce in school gardens directly on school property. According to SlowFoodDenver.org, “The Garden To Cafeteria (GTC) program teaches students how to grow and harvest food safely to be used in the school cafeterias on the salad bars.” The students experience lessons in economics by selling their fresh produce to the school kitchens. The proceeds in turn support the same school gardens for future planting and harvesting. In fact, “In 2012, in 14 schools, the program produced 24 different produce items totaling 1,122 pounds of produce and $979 paid to gardens” allowing more children to reap the benefits of gardening, eating and/or selling their vegetables.
• In Virginia, over 300 preschoolers and their parents are currently participating in Dr. Yum’s Preschool Food Adventure, a school curriculum designed specifically for 4 year-olds. The structured lessons in food exploration include language, math and food science activities that begin in the classroom but continue at home, if the parents would like their family to participate. Teachers report an increase in healthy foods appearing in the student’s lunches and parents report that their kids are becoming more adventurous and trying new foods at home.
Developing a meaningful relationship with food is fostered by hands-on, experiential food education to spark kids’ interest in healthy food options, rather than demanding that only certain foods appear in their lunchboxes. Exploring new tastes and textures should be fun, not dictated. Establishing strict food-packing rules as if eating were strictly another behavior to enforce doesn’t create healthy eaters at school. It creates parents who pack lunches that fit school policy. Encouraging kids of any age to choose healthy foods over less nutritious choices is best achieved through food education, not food enforcement.
Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, an international speaker on the topic of pediatric feeding disorders and co-author of the forthcoming book Raising A Healthy, Happy Eater. With more than 15 years of experience as a food therapist and eating coach for all children, including those with special needs, she is a go-to resource for anything related to kids and food. In 2010, Potock launched My Munch Bug, where she teaches parents and professionals how to raise healthy, happy eaters. Her advice has been shared in national publications, including Parents magazine, and popular special needs websites such as Generation Rescue.