When my daughter was named her class’s student of the month for October 2015, we were all thrilled, but she was most excited about one thing: getting the monthly pizza luncheon for SOMs in all grades (an elite group for sure). The monthly lunch with pizzas, CapriSuns or bottled water, and a small dessert was not only longer than her usual 15-minute lunch, but it was PIZZA. With FRIENDS! In a special room! With DESSERT!!!
But on October 5, a letter came home from the principal that made it clear this month’s pizza luncheon would likely be the last of its kind. The school was preparing for the Nevada School Wellness Policy rollout and was already making adjustments to comply.
“Nevada’s school wellness policy was based on and developed using USDA’s Smart Snacks Nutrition Standards for all Foods Sold in Schools, Interim Final Rule and the Local School Wellness Policy Implementation, Proposed Rule as required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010,” the letter read. “Under federal law, school districts that receive reimbursement from USDA for child nutrition programs must develop their local school wellness policies to address all of the federal and state requirements (NV School Wellness Policy, p. 3) … The WCSD Wellness Policy must include goals for nutrition promotion and education, physical activity, and other school-based activities that promote wellness.”
After reading the letter, and having heard nothing about the policy before, my first reaction was “Hey! Great!” The foods served in the lunchroom, after all, have been abhorrent, and the food-oriented fundraisers have always left something to be desired. But then I read up on it. This policy doesn’t seem to apply to lunches at all. Rather, it seems to have mostly to do with school snacks, on-campus celebrations involving food, vending machines, school stores, food-as-reward programs, fundraisers, and competitive sales. In short, any food brought in from outside and intended to be distributed among students is effected—not lunches brought from home for individual students, and not cafeteria lunches.
No more birthday cupcakes.
No more candy canes for holiday parties or Halloween candy.
No more special pizza parties for class achievements.
In and of itself, perhaps, this might be a great thing. Kids are getting way too much junk food, right? And not ALL food is off the table, just the stuff that isn’t on the district’s approved snack list, which, admittedly, contains hundreds of approved items that seem like treats to kids.
But as the policy has rolled out in force, and its effect is being felt by teachers, students, and families not just at our school but across the district, its many, MANY flaws are becoming apparent. And a great many people, myself included, are not fans. Here’s why.
- Most obvious, celebrations with food are nice, and we’ll miss them. They are incentives for kids who behave well, who work hard, who get only 15 minutes to eat lunch and may only get one or two recesses each day. They are special, one-off events that give kids something to (deservedly) look forward to. Birthday kids ought to be allowed to celebrate with a cupcake made at home. For my daughter’s fall celebration (because no longer can the school allow “Halloween parties”), I was allowed to bring oranges. Kind of a bummer way to kick off fall break if you ask me. Which leads me to #2…
- The “approved smart snacks” list is ridiculous. Okay, take away the candy at school parties. But have you seen the list of what’s approved? My kid can’t have a birthday cupcake made at home for her and her classmates, but you know what the snack list says she can have? Here’s a sampling: baked and reduced fat varieties of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, reduced-fat Cool Ranch Doritos, Cinnamon Toast Crunch Crisps Pouch, Fruit Roll-Ups in three reduced-sugar flavors, strawberry Go-Gurt, and Yoplait yogurts with Trix cereals. In other words, a ridiculous host of processed foods. Yes, it’s great that the list is enormous, and I admit that it’s nice to see how many offerings there truly are, so there’s a lot of variety. Fruits and veggies are of course allowed, but with no added dressings or dips—in other words, carrots with ranch, a great way to get kids eating veggies, is prohibited. Plus, I’d personally prefer my daughter eat real food with real ingredients than a processed, reduced-sugar Fruit Roll-Up, which according to its ingredient label online lists Polydextrose, Dried Corn Syrup, and Corn Syrup as its first three ingredients, not to mention palm oil, yellow 5, blue 1, and red 40. Trust me, I’m no prude, and I allow my daughter to eat processed foods on occasion. But the hypocrisy bugs me.
- Teachers don’t want to be police officers. They don’t want to page through a document that numbers at least 40 pages (PDFs are downloadable and listed by category, of which there are 12) to determine whether a snack is approved. And once food is brought, they absolutely have to do this because if they don’t, the school could be slapped with a painful $125,000 fine. This is no joke. So the upshot is that many teachers are asking that absolutely no food be brought at all. Many are so gun shy they are refusing to allow any parties at all. Food incentives are no longer welcomed, and celebrations are encouraged to be non-food oriented. Many teachers are flat-out refusing to hold parties, and one friend of mine told me her daughter’s second-grade class were forbidden from exchanging Valentine’s cards or having any Valentine’s Day parties. My daughter’s teacher allowed Valentine cards, but they were to be signed, not addressed, and with absolutely no food attached.
The policy is in force from midnight through 3:30 p.m. on my daughter’s school grounds. So those kids who try to skirt the policy by waiting until after the last bell rings to hand out their cupcakes on the playground put teachers in the uncomfortable position of having to shoo them away, because anyone who’s caught by a state authority distributing unapproved foods could cost the school big time. One teacher friend of mine told me, “A lot of my kids earn rewards in class on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, and a lot of our behavior awards are food and snacks, and they work hard for them.” Teachers and students are paying the price for the policy. But you know who’s not?
- The lunchroom. This week’s lunch menu options are still just as unhealthy as always:
Monday: Cheeseburger, popcorn chicken, or ham/cheese sandwich
Tuesday: Beef tacos, bean/cheese burrito, or bologna sandwich
Wednesday: Cheesy pizza stix with marinara sauce, BBQ pulled turkey, or bologna sandwich
Thursday: Chicken gravy bowl (whatever that is), pepperoni pizza, turkey/cheese sandwich
Friday: Meatball sub, chalupa, turkey/cheese sandwich
Oh, and let’s not forget the obligatory chef’s salad or “yogurt snackable” offered each day.
Those on the school breakfast plan may see the following this week: breakfast burrito, maple pancakes, chocolate chip muffin, French toast minis, and breakfast corndog.
So the accountability appears to rest entirely on teachers and parents. Where’s the school accountability for offering better meal choices? Sure, the ubiquitous apple, clementine, and pineapple tidbits are available too. But at my child’s school, kids get 15 minutes to eat. FIFTEEN minutes, people. (By the way, the wellness policy specifically states kids must get at least 20 minutes, but we have yet to see that part roll out). When my daughter brings lunch from home, she’s lucky if she has time to finish her sandwich, let alone a few of her grapes or bite of other fruit. If you are having hot lunch and have a choice between eating a burger and an apple in 15 minutes, and you’re a hungry six-year-old who likely won’t get another snack for hours, what do you think you’ll pick? The burger, of course.
One friend of mine, a second-grade teacher at a local elementary school, told me, “You should see the crap these kids eat in the breakfast program. These Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal bars—pure sugar. The kids will eat those but leave their orange. It makes more sense to have healthy foods on the grounds and then be able to have special treats.”
- Wellness is holistic. It’s not just about diet. Science tells us that kids who have longer lunch periods—preferably 30 minutes or longer—get more to eat, have better attention spans, have lower rates of obesity, and perform better in school. I can’t eat lunch in 15 minutes, so how can a young kid? My daughter gets two ten-minute recesses per day and one half-hour PE class a week from a teacher we are constantly having to raise money to keep on staff. If we truly want to address childhood WELLNESS, let’s look at increased lunch times, more physical activity, more money for PE programs and teachers, and a lunch program that actually practices what the school preaches, with offerings that go beyond fast-food fare and include real food, not processed ingredients. This policy seems poorly thought out and incomplete to me.
I have no idea how the policy was developed, and I have no doubt its many kinks will take time to work through. I also want to say that I applaud the state and the district for committing to wellness and trying to do SOMETHING. But this policy is flawed in many ways, and I, along with many other parents and teachers I know, want to see it revamped to take whole-child wellness, reasonable enforcement, and proper accountability into consideration.
***P.S. Update as of 2/23/15: So much has happened since the 24 hours this post went live yesterday! Among them was a conversation I had with my child’s teacher, who read the post and said she applauded it and mostly agreed with me. However, she wanted to clarify some erroneous details, and I felt they were important to mention here. First, my daughter’s lunch period is 11:25-11:45. Though sometimes they may get a late start to lunch, they are allotted 20 minutes, not the 15 I originally said. Also, she said that they are allowed to let students stay and finish lunch if they are still eating and still hungry. My daughter is a Chatty Cathy, apparently, so she and I will be having words about why food is coming home in her lunchbox. 🙁
The other point she made, which I want to clarify here, is that after lunch, the kids are allowed to to go recess, and it lasts about 25 minutes. It’s one of two recesses. So fortunately, my daughter is getting considerably more playtime than I’d thought, and I’m happy to report that.
Still, I feel strongly that the poor-quality school lunch offerings, a lack of emphasis on physical and nutrition education (and funding for PE teachers), and the outright double standard regarding enforcement of this policy while such poor food is served on the premises, should still be addressed.