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School nutrition horror stories (from Ellyn Satter’s website)

Posted by on Mar 22, 2011 in Blog Posts |

March 2011 • Family Meals Focus #55 • School Nutrition Horror Stories

As you probably know, in December, 2010, Healthy Hunger-Free Kids act was signed into law. This act provides increased nutritional support for afterschool programs and Summer Food programs, annual certification for WIC benefits, and less paperwork for the Child Care Food Program. My concern is that the act requires USDA to “make significant nutrition improvements” in school meals and eliminate “junk food” from vending machines. In my view, we need to provide, not deprive at school and make practical use of “forbidden food,” not eliminate it altogether. In an earlier FMF, I addressed why I consider such “junk food” vendettas to be problematic. I held forth in greater detail in “Appendix G, Feeding and parenting in the school setting,” in Your Child’s Weight – Helping Without Harming, posted for free download on my website under Resources/educational materials.

Why would “making school meals healthier” be a problem? It has to do with clean tools in dirty hands.

All public schools in the St. Paul, MN, district will be declared “sweet-free zones” and second helpings banned by the end of this school year. Reminders have been sent to teachers, students and parents that “sweet, sticky, fat-laden and salty treats” aren’t allowed during the school day.” In a Pioneer Dispatch OpEd piece, “Why I’m sour on St. Paul School’s ‘no-sweets’ policy” Katja Rowell, MD, observed that “when foods are overly controlled and restricted, the result is keen interest, desire and sneaking.” (See FMF #39 for the research on forbidden food.)

James McGuire, MD, a pediatrician in New Hampshire, says “I keep seeing anti-obesity programs that can only do harm, like a school cafeteria program in which the child has a debit card to buy lunch, and the parent enters on-line what the child can or can’t buy, so if he tries to buy a brownie, the cafeteria lady says ‘sorry!’ in front of everyone in line. One of my parents told me that in her son’s school a dietitian goes around at lunch-time and says things like ‘You shouldn’t eat that cookie before you eat the rest of your lunch,’ and ‘Don’t you think you should eat more from each food group?’ or ‘You probably shouldn’t eat that!’  Her child was so traumatized that he’s not eating any lunch at all. He tries to find reasons not to go to the cafeteria.”

An RD who is concerned about her 5th grade daughter’s teacher’s nutrition program “for academic success.” She is remaining anonymous to protect her from backlash. The teacher’s daily requirements are that children eat 3 snacks consisting of one (1) protein and one (1) fruit or vegetable, and drink 32 ounces of water. If they eat their snacks and drink all their water, they receive a homework pass.

Another RD, who wants to remain anonymous for the same reason, says her principal paid a woman who is a self-taught health guru to present her “healthy eating program” emphasizing fruits and veggies. The guru restricts her own children’s sugar, fat and wheat, and had a contest for which class could eat the most veggies in a week. “I feel that this health program has entitled the little girls to comment on everyone’s weight and what they are eating. My 10-year-old daughter is average size and not built like a ballerina or gymnast, as are a group of little girls in the class. She has legs of steel and is a mad woman on the soccer field. I let her take dessert (two small oatmeal cookies or mini candy bars or mini muffins) to school.  She has been taunted about weighing over 80# and for eating dessert even though she is ‘big.’ I tried to explain to the principal that it is bad to judge children on what they eat; that opens the door to their judging each other.”
This story has a happy ending: LG had another meeting with the principal and counselor. “Prior to the meeting I took them your books and I know the counselor read them and internalized them. They are backing off on their ‘healthy eating program.’”

Until April 13, you can comment on proposed nutrition standards for the school breakfast and lunch programs.

Copyright © 2010 by Ellyn Satter. Published at

There are some great resources linked in her piece if you are on a school wellness committee or are concerned about your child’s school policy. What are your horror stories? From eating disorders to weight concerns, misguided policies make matters worse…

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  1. this is what I’d like to see for “nutrition education” for kids… « Family Feeding Dynamics Family Feeding Dynamics - [...] me up, and I think is a great example of how we can show kids about how great food…