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Are teachers or parents responsbile for teaching kids about food?

Posted by on Sep 4, 2013 in Blog Posts | 10 comments


“Timmy, repeat after me: sugar is the devil.”


School is back in session. These are nervous days as many parents on my Facebook page share stories about teachers pushing kids to eat, children with food aversions being shamed and in tears, children eating in loud, crowded cafeterias with only fifteen minutes to eat etc. (Here and more school horror stories.) Then I came across this document on facebook that parents are encouraged to give to a child’s teachers.  I hope my daughter’s teacher doesn’t get one.

Here’s why:

Point #2 says, “Parents (and only parents) should decide what their children eat. But that right does not extend to other people’s children… parents need to know their rights won’t be usurped by other parents or teachers offering food in class.”

Hmm, I can get behind this, particularly for younger children, and with food allergies to consider. I also agree that food shouldn’t be used as a reward, and that food (or lack thereof) may impact behavior, and that there is no need for multiple celebrations that include food of any kind.

However, things take a turn on page two. Teachers are encouraged to educate the children  about choosing foods. “Help them do that by using age appropriate curricula, field trips, books and movies to discuss where food comes from, how it affects our bodies and why it all matters.” With a list of approved resources.


I’m confused. Only parents decide, but teachers should end-run the parents and go straight to the kids— as long as it’s approved information?

Is it not possible for informed parents (or teachers for that matter) to look at the same books, videos and resources (among others) and come to different conclusions about the relative safety (of sugar for example) and desirability of foods? What if I’ve read the books and the research and still choose to allow my child to enjoy “junk” on occasion, free from worry that I am causing harm? What if I’m convinced in fact that banning sugar and calling food “junk” may cause more harm and make children more interested/ashamed/secretive about those forbidden foods? I’m not interested in debating these issues with this post, just suggesting that educated folks can come up with different conclusions and approaches.

Furthermore, what if a family simply can’t afford the local, organic, “ethical” foods that the resources espouse? What if family food traditions differ, or a family is homeless or lives far from fresh food? How parents choose (or manage) to procure foods for their families is complex and multifactorial.  Public schools must acknowledge and honor these differences.

  • Should a vegan teacher be free to show graphic videos (some might call propaganda) and shame children who eat meat (even grass-fed, ethically raised) or have cheese in their Bento boxes?
  • What about a teacher who thinks Diet Soda is healthy and lectures our children about nutrition, telling them to stop drinking milk (dairy or soy/almond/rice substitutes) since it has “too many calories?”
  • What if a teacher with an eating disorder raves about her new diet where she fasts for 48 hours because it is “healthy” and she read a study somewhere…
  • Or imagine that your tween’s track coach tries to get all the girls onto an “all natural herbal tea” for weight loss?

Teaching our children to feel good about food, meals and cooking, and their bodies is vitally important to many parents. However: that may look very different for me and my family than for the author of this document, or for your family— and don’t we all  have a right as parents (isn’t it our exclusive right as the document asserts) to those different beliefs? Many of us feel upset, and protective of our children and how schools and the culture at large handles food and body image issues, but for very different reasons. As a parent, am I not allowed or entrusted to pass along my own food values, ethics, recipes and family traditions, even if they might not agree with another parent’s, or the teachers’ views?

Mealtime Hostage mom and blogger recently commented about BMI in the schools, but I think it applies: “I wish it was the case that I could send my kids to school and know that they are somewhat insulated from all the talk of fat epidemics and toxic processed snacks and all the spin on fear about not being the perfect size and eating the perfect food. Whatever happened to reading, writing and (BMI free) arithmetic?”

P.S, I would also wonder if hunger and kids skipping meals, or not having enough physical outlets isn’t as much of or more of a behavior factor than some food dye and sugar (or even HFCS!) in a tube of Yogurt for most kids… (See this amazing video from teachers about hunger.)

I’d love to hear from any teachers out there. Are you encouraged to talk or teach about nutrition? Parents, what say you? Do you want your child’s teachers chiming in on food? In what ways?

Making use of Forbidden Foods (Satter)

My post on how kids interpret wellness messages and my editorial on a middle ground

My proposed handout on talking to kids about food

5 Mistakes Parents Make When Educating Kids About Nutrition ( I’d add teachers are not exempt based on my family’s experiences and those shared by our facebook community.)

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  1. sarah

    I just received the following letter from my K student’s school and it completely freaked me out.:
    “In an effort to support the children’s learning in the afternoon following lunch and
    outdoor time, and specifically, to support their ability to focus on the reading and writing which typically occur throughout the day, we request your help. We ask that you make every effort to send your child to school with healthy foods (crackers, fruits, cut vegetables, etc.), foods with no sugar or with low sugar content (naturally sweetened foods—e.g. with honey or maple syrup are much healthier). We realize that foods with sugar are often the favorites for most children and we recognize that limiting such foods may cause frustration for your child, especially if they are accustomed to having them during the day. We make this request because we have found that all students are better able to concentrate, and to learn when they eat non-sugared foods during the school day.
    We will continue to talk with the students about the importance of their not giving you a hard time for supporting our request. We will make it clear that it is our request and we will discuss with them why we have made it—as part of our school’s focus on the principle of Health and Wellness. We sincerely thank you for your help with this. ”

    I need to sleep on it first, but it was all I could do not to shoot an email off the the principal to ask her for a face to face about it. The thing is, the school leaders hail from Boulder, Colorado, a place where I lived for 12 years (and dealt with an eating disorder while living there). It is the holistic/natural foods/fake nutritionists/holier-than-thou food capital of the world. The beliefs these school leaders hold are deeply rooted and may be difficult to “enlighten” or change. Every other aspect of the school is going to be fantastic, but I feel so disappointed and powerless about their above-mentioned “health and wellness” focus, and VERY nervous for my naturally larger-than-average little girl (who is built much like her mama). 🙁

    • katja

      “We will continue to talk with the students about the importance of their not giving you a hard time for supporting our request. We will make it clear that it is our request and we will discuss with them why we have made it—as part of our school’s focus on the principle of Health and Wellness. We sincerely thank you for your help with this. ” This is the scariest part for me… I think that there is no nuance here. Research is actually quite conflicted, but not a clear slam-dunk that sugar cause behavior problems. I noted that there were no fat or protein sources on that list either. Kids need balanced fat, protein and carbs. An oatmeal chocolate chip cookie will help them with more stable blood sugar than just sliced cucumbers, though one by their definition is “healthy” while the other isn’t. I am so sorry you are up against this. I think that just talking with kids, trying to push back against the brainwashing is critical. I talked about this in my book some in the section on sugar. I remember the teachers are her “sugar-free” preschool making this HUGE deal on the day they had rice krispies treats. They had the kids so excited and worked up with their warnings and focus on the sugar, that any misbehavior could be blamed on it, and in some ways it was giving the kids tacit permission to act out. I can’t believe I am saying “great” and Dr. Oz in the same sentence, but there was a great show about 5 years ago where they did all these experiments, and one had kids at a party at school. The kids were given “healthy sugar-free” treats on one occasion, and sugary treats on another. The parents COULD NOT predict what the kids ate. They went on and on about the sugar and horrible behavior when all the kids had been nibbling on veggies. It’s bias, that is, seeing what you expect to see… I know that doesn’t help you, and I wish I could, but this is the tidal wave of demonizing foods that our kids will be faced with. Condolences, and hope that the discussions/ideas on FB will help…

  2. Sarah

    I am a grade 7 & 8 math teacher and I started reading your blog and other “health at any size” bloggers about two years ago.

    I overhear some very interesting conversations. I often butt in – especially when I hear a group of kids discussing how one low fat lunch is best. (My line – you are growing, your body is supposed to be changing) I also appeal to vanity by mentioning that “brains need sugar as fuel (which they can get from sugar, or from digesting other foods) and your brain is partly made of fat!

    I also showed a fai bit of bias by introducing celebrating, enjoyment, and tradition as reasons that humans eat. I wonder about the line though – we have a higher than usual incidence of anxiety, self harm, and eating disorders among the students at or school – including one student who had such a high degree of social anxiety that she had a really hard time eatin at school – she felt like she was being watched. (Then her teachers started checking in “have you eaten anything today?” Or “please have some juice -from her own packed lunch – before going out for recess”).

    On the other hand, we had some real foodies too. On boy brought the tastiest lookin homemade sushi (and his restaurant owner parents donated a tray for a teacher appreciation lunch) Another was jealous and followed me around when he found out that the teachers got various toppings on pizza day, while the kids had to choose cheese or pepperoni (coordinating pizza orders is hard enough! The place that we order from also sends a few all dressed or veggie pizzas, and teachers can buy a slice (or three) last minute – if we get to the staff room quickly enough!

    It’s a really tough balance, especially when you throw nut, fish, and wheat allergies into the mix – along with Muslim, Hindu, vegan, and diabetic kids. (Yes, all in he same class – luckily the sushi eater was in a previous year – last year no one in my homeroom could bring fish or seafood).

  3. Scott

    Great article, Katja!

  4. Kris

    Though I have issues around food and am still working on learning to feed myself and my husband, I can say with certainty that they didn’t come from school. I went to school in the 1960s and 1970s, and my school was K-12, so quite a few of us students spent a decade or more growing up together. There were kids from all different socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures, and there was no cafeteria so you either brought your lunch from home or, if you were in the upper grades, you could buy lunch from the Snack Shack on campus.

    I recall fondly eating at the picnic tables beneath the ficus trees, chowing down with my friends. Some days it was pizza and soda from the Snack Shack, other days it was a bologna sandwich and cookies from home, or soup in a Thermos, or PBJ and crackers. No one, teachers included, ever commented on anyone else’s lunch unless it was to ask if they’d had enough to eat (some students might not have anything to eat some days, or not enough) so we could share. Now that I think back on it, it was a very nurturing and relaxing environment to enjoy socializing and sharing the midday meal together!

    We did learn about nutrition, but it was from the perspective of “Vitamin A is good for your eyes, and carrots have a lot of Vitamin A.” Very scientific, not judgmental. We learned about the different vitamins and minerals, and what they did, and what foods contained them. We all took our Flintstones chewable multivitamin every morning, so as far as we were concerned we were covered.

    Silly me, I never realized how fortunate I was not to have had such pressure around food at school. Maybe it’s because that was 40 years ago? I can’t imagine how stressful and confusing it must be for children growing up today and hearing all those conflicting messages around food and eating.

    • katja

      That sounds so wonderful! Yes, I think it is very stressful and confusing. Thanks for sharing. Our culture is messed up enough around food, body image etc, if we throw in school now, there is no place to just enjoy a meal and feel good about food.

  5. Casey

    I was a second grade teacher for five years and a third grade teacher for three years, now I am a stay at home dad of two daughters. As a second grade teacher, part of our science curriculum was a unit on healthy lifestyles and nutrition. We were encouraged to discuss the importance of being active and eating “healthy” using the food pyramid/my plate as a guide. I was always uncomfortable with this unit for a few reasons.

    First, I am a teacher by training, not a dietician or a feeding specialist. I did not necessarily keep up to date on the most current recommendations for feeding children (especially before I had children of my own), and I by no means considered myself an expert in this area.

    Second, I worked in a school where nearly 70% of the families were receiving free or reduced price lunch. For many of my students, school lunch was their only reliable meal of the day during the week, and who knows what they ate on the weekends. Who was I to tell them that they needed to be eating fresh fruits and vegetables at home when their parents could barely afford the food that was already scarce in their homes?

    Third, as a parent, I want the final say in what my children are eating at home. I can appreciate the good intentions of the schools, but there are circumstances that teachers are not always aware of that influence a child’s diet. Everything from religious beliefs to health concerns may be influencing how a family chooses to eat, and as a teacher you can’t possibly keep track of all of that. I would hate to tell a student that what they are doing at home is wrong, just because it may be different from what I do.

    My oldest daughter just started kindergarten, and thankfully the lunches I pack for her have not come into question yet. She seems to be able to eat what she wants, and leave what she is not hungry for. I am thankful for that.

    • katja

      Thank you so much for your experience. Your comment reminded me of one of the stories that a dietitian shared in the book about how shameful and fearful she felt when in 2nd grade the teacher talked about nutrition. It was such a poignant section, found it… “I remember clearly learning about the food groups in second grade. Already feeling
      much like an outsider since all of my schoolmates were raised with a mom, I panicked and intuitively felt that something else was wrong with my family—we didn’t eat that way. We had cola, sugar cereals, and not many vegetables. I felt a lot of shame, fear, and somehow responsibility beyond what a seven-year-old should feel. I went home and declared we were ALL going to eat GrapeNuts for breakfast! (I was the only one who did.) Looking back, I wish that I didn’t take the burden of worry. I wish there was a compassionate side to that discussion in school about food.”

      Sounds like you are an amazing and thoughtful teacher, for your kids now, and for your students. I think this whole topic lacks so much of that empathy that you hint at. Thank you again for sharing.Good luck with your children, I hope they are supported at school with their happiness and well being.

  6. Amy

    A friend of mine is a teacher and she’s always after the ‘next big thing’ diet/food wise. We have been friends since we were children and for a long while, I was all about dieting/weight loss so that was something we had in common. However, that changed once I had children and learned about HAES. We see each other infrequently but catch up every now and again.

    A few months ago we were at dinner and she was telling me how she gave up sugar because she felt it was making her sick (she does appear to have physical reactions to many foods). I nodded and told her I was glad she was doing what she felt she needed to do to be at her best self.

    Then she went on to tell me how she had announced this to her class of 8th graders. “No more sugar for me! Please don’t bring me any sugary treats! I’m sugar free!” From there she told me about girls in the class who told her they would go “sugar free” in solidarity. I stopped eating and kind of just stared thinking, “Oh no…”

    “And then,” she continued, “A mother came in to see me and said, “I wanted to meet you, Miss T. I wanted to meet the woman who has my daughter off sugar!”

    “Could it be,” I thought, “a parent calling her out on this baloney?”

    She went on, “I wanted to thank you! My daughter is over weight and I have been trying for years to get her to lose weight. Finally! Finally someone has gotten through to her!”

    She beamed as she told me this story. At that point I had lost my appetite. I wanted to say so much. In my head the words “eating disorder” and “lifetime of food issues” bounced in my head.

    I was able to say a few things about Health at Every Size (nothing she hadn’t heard before from me–especially since I post a lot about it on Facebook and we follow each other) but it clearly didn’t resonate. She was insistent, “I changed this girl’s life for the better! Her mother was so happy!”

    I wish I could say that I changed her mind. I wish I could say that I might have planted a seed. I don’t believe that was the case.

    All I can say is that I hope I have been giving my children a leg up so that they realize when teachers or other authority figures/peers say things like this, they will know it’s garbage and turn away.

    • katja

      Oh boy. That’s what worried me. M adores her teacher after one day! A friend’s daughter went to an all girls school where a teacher started a vegetarian club. I just think it’s too much. Too complex, too personal. We can’t even agree on evolution in the public schools… My friend recently said she loves Michael Pollock’s work, but every time she sees it now she wants to head to McDonalds! There is just too much psychology around it all. I’d be happy if teachers weren’t burdened with or asked to teach nutrition/food theory as well. I’d be pretty miffed and would have a talk with your friend for sure if my daughter was in her class! Wonder if this mom will check back in with her in 3 or 4 years…I hope it goes well for the young woman in question, but I am skeptical…