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Monitoring What Kids Eat at School

Meredith Roth didn't mean to create a ruckus. And she certainly didn't intend to set herself up as a social pariah. She was simply worried about all the junk food that her children, ages 6 and 4, were eating at school. "It wasn't just the poor choices in the cafeteria, like a plain bagel with a side of potato chips," says the Millburn, New Jersey, mom. "And it wasn't just the candy that teachers doled out for special occasions. It wasn't even all the cupcakes or doughnuts parents sent in for birthdays and holidays. It was how all those empty calories were adding up, day after day."

Roth complained to a reporter from a local newspaper, expecting that other moms would read the story and take her side. Instead, there was an uproar. School officials dismissed her as a troublemaker, and several neighbors urged her to loosen up. Someone sent her a note calling her a nuisance, and someone else shot off an e-mail making fun of a jogging outfit she wears. "I never expected to stir up that kind of reaction," Roth says.

Though the acrimony in that New Jersey suburb was a bit extreme, similar but more subdued debates are taking place in towns and cities across America. Whether it's in tiny preschool cooperatives or large urban school districts, parents and policy makers are struggling to address the growing problem of junk food in schools. "It's an important public-health issue," says Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who has pushed for laws and programs to improve the nutritional quality of food for kids. "Our schools should not be a source of unhealthy foods."

Of course, no parents want their children to eat endless amounts of nonnutritious foods. But there is plenty of discussion about what constitutes junk food, how much reform is necessary, and how much time schools should spend contemplating pizza and potato chips instead of reading, writing, and math.

For most parents, the first uninvited Twinkies pop up in nursery school. Until then, moms and dads may have controlled their kids' entire diets either by feeding them at home or by specifying what day-care centers and babysitters can serve. But once school starts, someone else is overseeing what children eat.

Different families have different ideas about what's acceptable. "I'm looking for a preschool that only allows healthy foods," says Sarah Gilbert, a mom of a 3-year-old from Portland, Oregon. "At home, we eat mostly organic, and we read labels carefully. I don't want someone just slapping down any old processed food in front of my son."

Others are more relaxed about the issue. "To me, junk food isn't that big a deal," says Lissa Schwing, of Mandeville, Louisiana, a mother of four. "I don't mind if my kids get sweets at school, as long as it's in moderation."

Preschools try to accommodate the range of sensibilities, but that can be a challenge. "Teachers usually start out telling parents to send in healthy snacks," says Harriet Worobey, a program director in the nutrition department of Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. She says that at first, parents send in something healthy for a class party, like a banana muffin. But then moms try to outdo one another: "Next time, someone might send in banana muffins with chocolate chips," Worobey says. "Then, it's chocolate cupcakes, then bigger chocolate cupcakes. Pretty soon, you have parents sending in goody bags filled with candy, and the situation is out of control."

It's how often the treats are handed out that many parents find troublesome. "In my daughter's preschool, it seems like it's somebody's birthday every week," one mom laments. "When you add in Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine's Day, and all the other holidays, kids are getting treats all the time."

Schools respond to such concerns by setting stricter policies, but even those create controversy. When Chandler School, in Duxbury, Massachusetts, banned parents from bringing in any food at all in 2004, at least one mom was furious. "On my daughter's birthday, she got to wear a special sash and walk to the office to get a sticker," says Betsy Hunter, who fought, but failed, to have the ban lifted. "There was no singing, no laughter, no cupcakes. This wasn't a celebration. They're taking the fun out of being a kid."

Once children start kindergarten, cupcakes aren't the only issue. The school cafeteria requires students as young as 5 to navigate entirely new options -- none of them controlled by their moms or dads.

School lunches, though far from perfect, have improved vastly over the past decade. Some 28 million hot lunches served to school kids each day are governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By law, they must include milk, protein, fruits or vegetables, grains or breads, and no more than 30 percent of their calories may be from fat.

But to boost revenues, many schools offer additional items in the lunchroom. "My 5-year-old son had pizza as an option every day," says Kelli Rodda, of Azle, Texas. "Of course that's more appealing than chicken and vegetables."

And kids don't get much direction on what to choose. "When my kids started school, I was surprised to learn that teachers and lunchroom workers are prohibited by law from helping kids make choices," says Michelle Smith, a mother of two in Austin. "I always assumed that someone would say, 'Don't you think you should have a vegetable with that?' But even the youngest children are left to pick out their own meals."

Food sold outside the cafeteria can also make a healthy lunch less appealing. A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 46 percent of elementary schools have revenue-producing vending machines, sometimes stocked with soda, cookies, and chips. Snack carts and school stores offer more empty calories, and periodic fund-raisers often rely on baked goods or candy bars. Though such sales are usually prohibited during breakfast or lunch, they can still undermine a child's appetite.

Combine all those temptations with the candy many teachers give as rewards and the sharp decline in recess time and physical-education classes, and it's no wonder that so many American children are out of shape. While no one is blaming schools for America's high rate of childhood obesity (it's more than doubled over the past two decades), nutrition experts like Worobey are convinced that to reverse the trend, schools will have to become part of the solution.

Not surprisingly, many efforts to rid schools of junk food have been part of larger anti-obesity efforts. A new federal policy, initiated in part by Senator Harkin, requires that all schools have a wellness plan that addresses nutrition. Over the past two years, 15 states passed laws that restrict junk food to varying degrees, and an additional 24 states are currently considering similar restrictions. In 2004, Texas -- where more than 35 percent of schoolchildren are overweight -- issued a sweeping ban on all junk food in public schools, from vending machines to bake sales. (Interestingly, though, its ban on birthday treats created such a controversy that the state repealed that regulation. "We didn't realize how important cupcakes were," one official admitted.)

At the grass-roots level, schools are tackling the issue on many fronts. In Arlington, Virginia, the local school board voted to prohibit vending machines that sell soda and candy. In the Vista Unified School District in California, elementary-school lunchrooms have introduced "garden bars" with healthy choices like broccoli, cauliflower, grape tomatoes, and sliced cucumbers. Other schools have called on well-known chefs like Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters to help create healthy and appealing cafeteria options, and still others have planted gardens where kids grow their own fruits and vegetables.

Some districts are experimenting with new schedules. Researchers have found that kids who have recess after lunch race through their meal and are more likely to throw food into the trash. Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recess usually comes after lunch in 73 percent of schools. When the Vista Unified School District switched it to before mealtime, "the kids ate better, and we reduced waste enormously," says nutrition director Enid Hohn.

In many areas, parents have been the driving force behind the push toward healthier foods. "When my older child entered kindergarten in Des Moines, her school told us that, for sanitary reasons, we could only send in prepackaged snacks -- and they suggested things like Little Debbie cakes," says Charli Carpenter, who now lives in Pittsburgh and whose children are 9 and 3. "My husband and I advocated for letting parents bring in fresh fruit. We convinced the school that a banana could be considered 'prepackaged.' "

Anita Courtney, a mom and a registered dietitian in Lexington, Kentucky, tackled the issue of using sweets as a reward in the classroom. She brainstormed with her daughter's teacher to come up with a list of alternatives, such as having a sing-along for a class celebration or letting the spelling-bee winner choose the day's story. That list was distributed throughout the school.

For the most part, parents are able to introduce such changes without antagonizing other parents, teachers, or school administrators, but that's not always possible -- as Meredith Roth discovered last year. "Maybe people didn't like the way I approached the junk-food issue," she concedes. "But you can't please everyone. I felt I had to do something. Somebody has to speak up for the health of our children."

Here are some easy ways parents can push to limit their kids' exposure to junk food at school.

  • Advocate for more nutritious vending-machine choices. Some schools encourage healthy eating by charging less for snacks like pretzels and juice and more for soda and chips.
  • Push for nonfood fund-raisers. Candy sales can bring in big bucks, but so can selling items like candles, gift wrap, or school-spirit tattoos.
  • Identify teachers who use candy as an incentive or a reward. Talk to them about other ways to honor a student or class.
  • Mobilize other parents. Raise the issue at a parent meeting or on the playground to see whether others share your concerns. If they do, talk about what needs to be done and present ideas as a group to school administrators.
  • Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper voicing your concerns. It's a great way to raise public awareness about the issue.