Dear Teachers, Principals, and School Administrators:
Some of you are already back at school and others will be starting after this weekend. Welcome back, everyone, and thank you for all your hard work to teach our children well.
Part of the education curriculum includes healthy eating. While this is a noble gesture on the part of the education system, we feel it is time to have a meaningful conversation around who is responsible for deciding what children can and cannot eat at school. This discussion has two distinct components; curriculum and environment.
Writing, reading, math, and other subjects are based on methodology, and grounded in research related to how children learn, and the order in which skills must develop to provide a foundational understanding of concepts. This foundation provides the knowledge required to progressively acquire skills needed to successfully learn and understand each lesson. There is also consensus on what defines successful writing, reading and math skills and what level of knowledge is appropriate for each grade level.
Healthy eating has no such clear definition. What specific foods are (and are not) healthy is largely subjective, and opinions vary between individuals. Young children have a wide variance of eating ability (7,8) and inherent preferences for taste that are often contrary to the current slant toward a low fat, low sugar, low sodium, nutrient rich diet.(4,5,6) Such a diet is intended to prevent negative outcomes in a child’s future health, despite evidence that concludes a low fat diet provides no benefits to children as children(9,10); sodium intake is physiologically controlled (1,2,3); and children are able to self-regulate energy needs without adult interference.(5,11,12) These concepts are evidenced and well supported in the published literature, yet are often not considered in school healthy eating curricula.
Many schools have adopted a healthy eating policy around what specific foods are acceptable in an educational environment. Efforts to make schools a safe and supportive space for all children is applauded and appreciated, especially where life-threatening allergies are concerned.
As discussed earlier, children have inherent preferences, often for energy-dense foods that support children’s needs for growth and development. It is hoped that schools will recognize both energy-dense and nutrient-rich options as part of a healthy diet
Further, packed lunches and snacks are frequently sent by parents to support their child’s eating ability away from home. Most parents are impressed with a teacher’s ability to remember the name and some meaningful individual personality traits to make learning an enjoyable experience for each student. Most parents do not expect their child’s teacher to know, nor do they often wish share more than is necessary, about each student’s detailed medical history, the family’s socioeconomic status, parent’s work schedule, shopping habits, or food preferences. It is hoped that teachers and parents will foster a relationship built on trust; one that assumes parents are feeding their child to the very best of their ability.
Food packed from home for the child to consume at school often considers factors the teacher may not be aware of. An energy-dense, low-nutrient lunch may be indicative of a child who is less adventurous with novel foods. A safe and supportive learning environment is believed to include an equally safe and supportive eating environment, one where the child can learn about food at his or her own pace. Within the education system’s duty to accommodate the needs of students, it does not create undue hardship to allow food packed from home for those children who cannot manage in an environment where school provides meals. The security of having accepted food at hand often helps many children learn to tolerate and eventually accept novel foods. For this reason, excepting safety concerns which result from life-threatening food allergies, we respectfully request that any food packed from home is exempt from the school’s healthy eating policy.
Encouraging kids to eat healthy foods at school is a noble goal with good intentions. Like all paths paved with good intentions, such noble goals may not be in the best interests of all students. Placing the emphasis on the social aspects of sharing a meal together – instead of dictating what foods students can and cannot eat – provides students with a safe, supportive and inclusive environment where all children can be successful with eating.
1. Sodium Intake In Populations: Assessment of the Evidence (2013). Brian L. Strom, Ann L. Yaktine, and Maria Oria, Editors; Committee on the Consequences of Sodium Reduction in Populations. Food and Nutrition Board; Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice; Institute of Medicine
2. Michael H Alderman. Point Counterpoint: Salt, blood pressure and health: a cautionary tale
Int. J. Epidemiol. (2002) 31 (2): 311-316 doi:10.1093/ije/31.2.311
3. O’Donnell, M., Mente, A., Rangarajan, S., McQueen, M. J., Wang, X., Liu, L., … & Yusuf, S. (2014). Urinary sodium and potassium excretion, mortality, and cardiovascular events. New England Journal of Medicine, 371(7), 612-623.
4. Drewnowski A. Taste preferences and food intake. Annu Rev Nutr 1997a;17:237-53
5. Birch LL, Fisher JO. Development of eating behaviors among children and adolescents. Pediatrics 1998;101:539-49.
6. Birch LL. Children’s preferences for high fat foods. Nutr Rev 1992;50:249-55
7. Pliner P. Development of measures of food neophobia in children. Appetite 1994;23:147-63.
8. Pliner P, Stallberg-White C. “Pass the ketchup, please.”: Familiar flavours increase children’s willingness to try
9. Zlotkin, S. H. (1996). A Review of the Canadian” Nutrition Recommendations Update: Dietary Fat and Children”. The Journal of nutrition, 126(4S), 1022S.
10. Kostyak, J. C., Kris-Etherton, P., Bagshaw, D., DeLany, J. P., & Farrell, P. A. (2007). Relative fat oxidation is higher in children than adults. Nutr J, 6(1), 19.
11. Satter EM. Internal regulation and the evolution of normal growth as the basis for prevention of obesity in childhood. J Am Diet
12. Satter E. The Satter Feeding Dynamics Model of child overweight definition, prevention and intervention. In: O’Donahue W, Moore
BA, Scott B, eds. Pediatric and Adolescent Obesity Treatment: A Comprehensive Handbook. Taylor and Francis: New York, 2007, pp. 287–314.