Another day, another junk food debate; from boycotting bake sales to banning sodas, many schools have joined the national fight against obesity.
An August 2012 study from Pediatrics made a startling discovery after following a group of school-aged children: kids who went to a school without junk food regulations maintained about a 37 percent overweight rate from fifth to eighth grade without budging. However, in schools with junk food regulations and bans, the number started at 39 percent in fifth grade and declined to about 18 percent by eighth grade. Of course, the results of the study beg the question: Should junk food be banned from schools altogether? Before you start petitioning your PTA, make sure you have all the facts and know how you, as a parent, can help.
- Teaching at home. While you might be annoyed by the availability of Twizzlers at your child's school, it's important to think about the part you play in the problem. "Unfortunately, blocking junk food is only part of the answer," says Dr. Jeffrey L. Cumro. "If we block junk food at school and the kids are allowed to go home and eat whatever they want, we really aren't solving the problem. We're just delaying it, which could lead to bigger binges." Don't place the blame on the schools completely: parents have to shoulder some of the responsibility as well.
- Getting involved. Most schools make the menu available for parents to read beforehand. While you can't issue a ban on all unhealthy foods, you can talk about the best choices on the menu with your child the night before. Or, head over to the school and take a tour yourself to see what's available. If knowledge is power, knowing what's offered at school means you have the power to steer your kid toward healthier choices.
- Defining junk food. While 16 states have already adopted junk food regulation for their schools, other states might be more hesitant to do so. A lot of the issue boils down to the actual definition of junk food. After all, one parent might think only candy is junk, while another thinks any type of sugar constitutes as contraband. Before you start any type of action plan to get rid of unhealthy grub in your child's school, take into consideration what junk food really is and temper your expectations accordingly.
- Dealing with fundraisers. While getting rid of junk food might sound like a great idea off the bat, consider some of the repercussions at school. "A ban on junk food in schools does not have to prohibit parents from sending junk food with their kids for lunch if they choose," family therapist Patt Hollinger Pickett reminds pro-banners. If your school banned sugary or fat-laden snacks, would there also be a ban on bake sales and sweets-based fundraisers? If you support a ban, try to come up with alternatives for moneymakers at school as well.
- Taking the reins. Just because you're not a lunch lady doesn't mean you can't have an influence over school lunches and snacks. If you live in a state where your school doesn't ban junk, consider petitioning for healthier foods overall instead. Melanie Angelis, a teacher and nutritionist, gives some ideas for simple changes to make a big difference at school: "Replacing the soda machine with a water machine is one option, and offering vegetables as part of a stir fry may also help. Choosing the same basic ingredients (e.g., potatoes) but decreasing the processing and unhealthy condiments available is another option," she suggests. "The current trend is that parents expect teachers to assume full responsibility or none at all as opposed to working together."
- Supporting health programs. Most schools offer nutrition as part of their health-based programs. If you really want your child to learn the difference between healthy foods and unhealthy choices, support these programs as much as possible. Talk to your child about what she learned, volunteer to lend a hand and make sure that the curriculum is being followed so that your good teaching habits at home are reinforced in class as well. "We should not forget that physical inactivity is another large issue causing our obesity epidemic amongst the nation's youth," warns nutritionist Jackie Vega. See if you can help out with athletic programs as well as nutrition education.
- Teaching healthy choices. So, should junk food be banned altogether? While it makes sense to limit a child's access to unhealthy foods, chew on this: are you teaching a child to make healthy choices, or simply removing unhealthy options? Some might argue that simply taking away the junk stops your child from learning to make healthy choices on her own, which could be a problem when she's exposed to sweet treats later. A junk food ban doesn't necessarily mean healthier kids, just kids with fewer choices.
It's an issue that might never have a concrete answer. While some love the idea of only healthy foods at school, others don't like the idea of government taking choices away.
So, what's a parent to do? First, you can start by getting involved at school and ensuring your child knows the difference between junk and the good stuff. Even if your little one noshes on a chicken nugget at school, it's the perfect time for a lesson on healthy options. Prepare her well and your child will have the tools to make better menu decisions in and outside of the cafeteria.