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Marci Warhaft-Nadler Headshot

Schools Need to Lay Off Our Kids' Lunch Bags

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I get it.

Childhood obesity is a growing problem in our society. Some say it's because our kids are playing too many video games, other people blame it on a steady diet of fast food. Whatever the reason, we're constantly being told that our kids are getting fatter and sicker by the minute and that we'd better intervene as quickly as possible. Recently, more and more schools have begun implementing "healthy food programs" in an effort to encourage a healthier lifestyle. Unfortunately, while this may sound good in theory, it can be disastrous when put into action.

The problem is that there just isn't enough research and education being done around these programs before they get into our schools and often times the information our kids are getting is less than accurate and in some cases, even dangerous.

One popular practice has some schools banning "junk food" from lunch bags. This is a policy that I find incredibly difficult to swallow. While I have absolutely no problem with schools refusing to sell foods they feel are unhealthy in their cafeterias or vending machines, I strongly believe that what a parent chooses to pack their own kids for lunch is their own business.

If a child is told that the lunch their parent has provided for them is unacceptable, they will feel confused and humiliated. Children need to trust their parents and parents need to feel confident that the decisions they make for their kids won't be overruled by their school. Lunch bag inspections could also lead to the child hiding the "bad" food and then eating it secretly to avoid being teased or judged. This is not a behaviour we want to encourage.

Another mistake is that by making certain foods "taboo" they will only be making them more enticing for some kids. Telling kids they can't have cookies will only make them want them even more, only now they'll feel guilty for eating them. The last thing we want to do is create negative feelings around food.

We need to be educating our kids about food, not shaming them away from it.

A few years ago, I found myself protesting the "Healthy Eating Plan" that was being implemented at my sons' school. While I appreciated their intentions, it was the execution that I had a problem with. I am very grateful to the teachers who genuinely want to do what's best for their students, which is why I think it's so unfair to them and to our kids when school boards ask them to promote programs that are so flawed.

Just this week, when a mom in Manitoba sent her two kids to school with homemade lunches that included roast beef, potatoes, carrots, oranges and milk, she was shocked to receive a note from the school telling her that their lunches were deemed "unbalanced" and were supplemented with Ritz crackers. The school follows the strict guidelines of what many believe to be a very outdated Canada's Food Guide and felt that the "grains" category had been neglected. To add insult to injury, this mom was fined $10 for her oversight.

It amazes me that chastising this woman for the obviously well balanced meal she chose to pack for her kids didn't seem at all strange to the person writing that note. No offense to Ritz crackers, but what exactly was missing? The sodium? Saturated fat? I'm confused, and if I was this mom, I would be livid.

Another bizarre example of food shaming comes from Richmond, Virginia where a school has decided to eliminate the risk of poor parental lunch choices altogether by making it against school policy to send your kids to school with any kind of lunch at all. Instead, all school lunches will be provided by the school. On what planet, does it seem alright to not allow a parent to have a say in what their child eats during the day? Of course, you can be exempt from this rule, if you provide a note from your doctor with an excuse as to why you want your child to have homemade lunches over the ones in the cafeteria.

I imagine that would read something like this," Please excuse Megan from eating the chicken nuggets, tater tots and other foods from the cafeteria as her mother would prefer she ate...anything else!"

I think these programs are misguided. Instead of worrying about every little thing we're feeding our kids, they should be concerning themselves with the kids who aren't being fed at all. I think schools should provide food for the children who just don't have enough at home because those families could use some support. It should be about looking out for each other and working together as a community to help each other out, not judging each other's parenting choices.

The most confusing part of this story for me, is that while this school doesn't trust their parents enough to pack homemade lunches, they promote the fact that they sell ice cream and nachos during P.E. classes!

Huh?

There are ways we can teach our kids about nutrition and healthy living without creating weird rules about food, but we have to do the proper research to make sure this is done correctly. I applaud the schools that want to take action, but beg them not to jump into something without looking at it from all angles to make sure that in their effort to encourage healthy kids, they aren't creating confused, embarrassed and eating disordered ones instead.

If our goal is to raise healthy, well-adjusted kids, we have to work together to make that happen. It may take a village to raise a child, but if that village is dysfunctional, what chance does that child have?

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