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why I’m sour on St. Paul schools “sweet-free” status

Posted by on Jan 6, 2011 in Blog Posts | 21 comments

My Kiddo starts in the St. Paul schools next fall. I read this article about St. Paul district’s sweet-free, no seconds “wellness” policy with dismay. Jill Gebeke made it a habit to reward herself with a small piece of chocolate after lunch every day. It’s hard work being a school principal, after all. But the chocolate rewards ended last month when some first- and second-graders caught her. “I thought you said this was a sweet-free zone,” they reminded her.” (Strib might not give access to the full article, so try and search “sweet-free”) What I found on the district’s website didn’t reassure me, and raised even more red flags– like the poster I pulled at left. (I know what I would be thinking about all day if I had to stare at that poster!)

The editorial I crafted in response, appeared today in St. Paul’s paper, the Pioneer Press. (It has come to my attention that the article is no longer accessible online. see end of post for entire editorial in red…)

Read below and read my editorial. Am I off-track? What do you think?


Here is a sampling of what the students are learning from the wellness policy (excerpted from online essays from grade-school, age not specified…)

children might get addicted to sugar. Then whenever they see sugar they might think they need to get some. They might get crazy from too much sugar

It can also cause children to lose their self-esteem because they might think they are too overweight.We need to help overweight people loose weight.

I know that the bad foods taste so good. But we have to worry about us kids being healthy.

It decreases diabetes when kids start making better choices.

At school right now I think I haven’t got enough exercise at recess.  I am a really slow eater and I am always the last one in the lunchroom so when I get outside, we are already going inside.  Sadly our recess just got bumped down a lot and maybe with the Wellness Policy it might get bumped up again.  I doubt that will happen.

If you are obese and want to start losing weight then you could start eating healthier foods.

If you eat too much sugar then you can get diabetes and you would have to inject insulin into yourself.

I think it is a good thing that kids shouldn’t eat junk because if they eat too much people would say mean things about their body or how they look.

They could probably die. That would make their family or friends sad. They could get diabetes and if they do, their mom or dad might not have money to pay for their medical bill.

You would be ahead of everyone that was making fun of you.   But don’t eat it  everyday, because then you are back to what you were before.

If you eat healthy foods your teeth won’t rot and you won’t have to have surgery or have steel rods put into your body.

You won’t get as many colds and flues

Maybe you think the school shouldn’t control what you eat but you can just stuff your selves with junk when you get home; the only person you’ll be hurting is yourself. I hope you appreciate the maybe dumb sounding rules more now. I sure do!

Themes that kept popping up in the essays were that the policy would prevent obesity and diabetes, tooth decay, (steel rods…) and sugar addiction (a controversial notion at best).  Mind you, there are no school programs that have been shown to do any of the above in spite of hundreds of millions of dollars poured in to the efforts.

What I found most disturbing is the lack of understanding about biological diversity and the complex, multi-factorial nature of weight and health. The lesson kids learn is that if you’re fat it’s because you are “stuffing yourself” with “junkfood,”  so it’s your fault. Lots of talk about teasing in the essays should raise a major red flag. Kids are literal thinkers, and are being taught that obesity is preventable, therefor your fault–  throwing the door  wide open to bullying.  Notice also how much worry and anxiety comes through in the essays. My personal favorite from the kid who just wants more recess time, more time to be active, but wait, it’s been cut!

Find out what your schools are doing! You know that for sex-ed the parents get a letter, get notified in detail of content and need permission for the child to attend the classes. I think nutrition “education” is as, if not more important, and I fear our children are net getting the best we have to offer. What do you think?

Why I’m Sour on St. Paul Schools’ ‘no sweets’ Policy (Katja Rowell M.D.)

The St. Paul school district’s policy banning “sweet, sticky, fat-laden and salty treats,” and second-helpings is a misguided attempt to deal with obesity. As a family physician and childhood feeding specialist helping families with feeding and weight concerns, I fear this policy will cause more harm than good, and worsen the very problem it aims to address. It doesn’t have to be this hard! I believe there is a good-sense solution– somewhere between this “abstinence only” policy and serving cupcakes all day– that is more likely to help.

The policy has two main aspects that undermine a child’s skills with eating. First, the banning of “treat” foods and labeling them as “bad” or “unhealthy” is likely to have predictable if unintended consequences. When foods are overly-controlled and restricted, the result is keen interest, desire and sneaking. Children then tend to overeat and binge when given the chance. Sadly, girls as young as four report feeling guilt and shame when eating forbidden foods– if the foods are “bad,” and they are eating them, then they must be bad.

Second, with no option for second helpings, schools undermine eating based on internal cues of hunger and fullness, and fail those for whom school is where they are fed most reliably. The policy also points to a fundamental misunderstanding of how children (especially young ones) eat– lots some days, little others. Children are born with the ability to self-regulate intake, meaning they know how much to eat so their bodies can grow in a healthy way.

Restriction and an overemphasis on “healthy” foods, weight as a goal and calorie and fat reduction will likely lead to increased dieting behaviors. Diets fail for 85-95% of adults, and the results are no better in children. Two out of three teen girls are dieting, with the most predictable result being weight gain, and boys are increasingly joining in. In addition, eating disorder diagnoses are up– at ever-younger ages.

St. Paul’s policy is like others that have come before it– large, multimillion-dollar school programs that lowered fat and calories, controlled vending options, increased physical activity, and failed to lower body mass index (BMI.) It’s easier to ban treats and slash fat and calories than address issues like poverty, food insecurity, stress, lack of adequate sleep, lack of basic cooking skills, or dieting and restrictive or neglectful feeding practices that are all associated with weight gain.

Here’s the good news. Schools have an opportunity to support students in learning “eating competence.” Competent eaters have stable and lower BMI, better blood sugar and cholesterol levels and better nutrition, according to author, nutrition and childhood feeding expert Ellyn Satter MS RD, and supporting research.

Competent eaters feel good about eating and enjoy a variety of foods from all the food groups in satisfying amounts. They are more capable with cooking and use of nutrition labels, and provide themselves with regular meals and snacks. They are less likely to engage in disordered eating including dieting and bingeing. Importantly, competent eaters decide how much to eat based on internal cues of hunger and fullness.

How schools can promote eating competence:

• Institute the Division of Responsibility: adults decide what, when, where to serve foods, children decide how much from what is provided. This strategy is endorsed by the American Dietetic Association. Serve a child-sized portion of dessert with the meal– sometimes a cookie, sometimes fruit. Don’t allow seconds on dessert. Allow seconds on foods that are within the budget and filling. Offer a variety of good-tasting foods so kids can choose, and not just ones that are readily accepted, like pizza and mac-n-cheese.  Include carbs, protein and low and higher fat options.

• Be good about timing meals, and beyond first grade, don’t allow mid-morning snacks, to get kids used to the meal habit. Allow kids enough time to eat and tune in to hunger and fullness–  and not in their snow suits! Small children need to be offered food every two to three hours; by grade-school they can wait three to four.

• Teach that all foods have a place in a healthy diet. There are no “good” or “bad” foods.  Emphasize what children can eat, not what they can’t. Enjoy fruits, grains, veggies, meats, and sweets. Get kids involved with growing, cooking, and tasting foods.

• Don’t serve soda in grade schools, and manage vending options in developmentally appropriate ways– a senior in high school needs different choices than a first-grader. Include ‘treats’ and ‘healthy’ foods at special school events and try to serve around meal and snack times. Don’t make the treats a big deal.

• Do not reward and praise, or punish and shame a child based on what or how much they are eating. Do not reward children with foods.

• Allow the opportunity for regular and enjoyable physical activity.

• Limit school activities that interfere with dinner-time, and assign reasonable amounts of homework. Encourage families to help children get adequate sleep.

School officials and administrators care deeply for our children. I hope they will reconsider this initiative with a focus on competence, not avoidance.

Katja Rowell MD is the mother of a child entering a St. Paul school next fall, and a childhood feeding expert and founder of Family Feeding Dynamics.

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  1. Holly F

    So Katja, what are you going to do for your daughter? Send her with a home-packed lunch? I have to say this issue is very high on my list of reasons to homeschool, despite the major inconvenience to me!

    • katja

      i do plan to pack her lunch most days, and with the occasional sweet and treat! Can’t wait to have that smack-down! I think some schools are looser than others. All the insanity around food, BMI etc is a major reason I would home-school, though I too, would go nuts!

  2. Cynthia Armistead

    This is only one of the examples of pure indoctrination that thrives in the American government daycare system. We were extremely fortunate in that we were able to homeschool my daughter from late elementary school through the end of middle school. She chose to experiment when high school time rolled around, so we allowed her to try both a private and a good public high school.

    At the public school, which was relatively small, by the time she got through the lines to get any food and sat down she had maybe 5 minutes to eat. It’s already hard to get her to eat enough, and she does best if she can “graze” through the day – but of course that wasn’t allowed at school (or even on campus during after-school activities now).

    I’m glad she’s done with that and is in college now. What I hear about my nephew’s experiences says that things aren’t any better in the elementary schools, though 🙁

  3. Sally McKinley

    years ago I was one of those lunch ladies(see restless native) that fed around 600 elementary school kids lunch everday prepared by 4 other ladies besides myself all from scratch. that included fresh rolls daily, roast beef, oven baked chicken, lasagne,spaghetti, etc. We knew most of the kids names and we had communication with them throughout the lunch period as they had more than 20 minutes to eat and socialize with their schoolmates. We also gave them seconds on the main meal if they had cleaned their plates.

    Quite a different story these days. I went to eat with my granchildren and had planned on getting what they got and when I saw what they were getting and found out that they only had 20 minutes to get their food, eat their food, put what they didn’t eat in the garbage, and get in line for their teachers, I decided to go home to eat. I couldn’t have eaten that fast. There is hardly any time for conversation, which I feel is important learning skills to learn and I believe it helps digestion.

    I liked what you had to say in your piece and I think parents need to stand up against this indoctrination. Kids that get out and play at recess(which has all but gone) will not have a problem with obesity.

    Our family had deserrt every night and I followed that with my children and my children are continuing that practice. they are in all kinds of sports and are perfect weight. I am a 71 year old woman with 3 cavities my whole life and the fearmongering about this b.s. drives me crazy. They are looking for problems, because that’s what gives them good self esteem. Follow the money… Where did this obsession start? Go back to teaching subjects that are important and let the parents do the parenting.

    • katja

      Oh Sally, we have lost so much, haven’t we?! please sign my petition! My nieces in France have a whole hour, from-scratch food (salad, main dish, veggie, bread, real silverware, glasses and an hour to get the food, socialize and eat!)

      • Katherine

        I was a TA in France. My middle- and high-school aged classes were most interested in how weird it was to only have 20 minutes for lunch.

        I believe there is also scientific support for slower eating being instrumental in healthy weight – savor the food and eat less of it, give your body time to signal it’s full before you’ve eaten to much.

        Very sad in so many ways!

        • katja

          it is sad! Imagine having 10 or 20 minutes, and being in your snow-suit!! Paying attention to what you eat certainly helps. Though if I had to eat some of the stuff the kids are served I would probably try to block it out too. Too much food is pre-packaged, not very appealing… A baggie of ice-berg lettuce with fat-free ranch? Hello!?

  4. Molly Fey Persinger

    Great editorial! well put….

  5. Lisa

    OMG. I would be HORRIFIED by that school policy! Thinking about my tender daughter being exposed to that kind of thinking is anxiety provoking for me, actually. Your editorial was spot-on, I can only hope that someone is paying attention. My daughter is heading off to kindergarten this fall and as far as I know our schools don’t have any such policy but if it does I’ll have to do some serious thinking about how to counter-act such bad information. Have you thought at all about how you are going to deal with it when she’s in the schools? I hope you will keep us updated on this issue as your family deals with it. Thanks for all you do!

  6. restless native

    I’m in complete agreement and then some. Our local public schools switched to the “healthy approach” several years ago and I’m saddened on several levels. I heartily disagree with the demonization of fat and “treat” foods, but I’m utterly dismayed at the ignorance about basic nutrition and what growing young bodies and brains actually need.

    I really miss the days when the lunch ladies were back there cooking rather than heating up individual servings of engineered food-ish substances like Rosie on The Jetsons. I attended the same school system my kids have and the cafeteria food used to be a very good, usually hot, lunch. And we had 45 minutes to go through the line, get a tray, and eat. Dessert was on the tray every day: a big cookie, chocolate pudding, apple cobbler, fruit salad, something. You could opt to buy extra milk–and many of the boys, in particular, did–and it was whole milk.

    Now in addition to the snack bar choices and the constant “healthy” message, they have these pre-packaged things for lunch that conform to some silly numbers like “no more than five grams of fat per serving”. How can the school system not understand that there’s more useable nutrition in a slice of real cheese pizza than in a packet of fat-free ranch dressing or a bag of seven Baked Lay’s potato chips? The pizza they do serve has a mere stain of sweet-tasting tomato sauce and a scanty sprinkle of imitation mozzarella cheese atop something that looks like a jumbo Communion wafer. And you have to get it and get it down in twenty minutes total. Don’t get me started on the “burritos” and the pasta.

    Huh. I see that my daughter forgot to take her turkey and provolone sandwich, tangerine, chocolate chip cookies and 100% juice pouch with her this morning and will be having cafeteria faux food instead. I know she’ll be wanting that sandwich when she gets home, so I’ve put it in the fridge.

    • katja

      Now in addition to the snack bar choices and the constant “healthy” message, they have these pre-packaged things for lunch that conform to some silly numbers like “no more than five grams of fat per serving”. How can the school system not understand that there’s more useable nutrition in a slice of real cheese pizza than in a packet of fat-free ranch dressing or a bag of seven Baked Lay’s potato chips? The pizza they do serve has a mere stain of sweet-tasting tomato sauce and a scanty sprinkle of imitation mozzarella cheese atop something that looks like a jumbo Communion wafer. And you have to get it and get it down in twenty minutes total.”
      Ugh. I agree. I am afraid of all the ultra-processed “fat-free” stuff. I can’t stand fat-free ranch dressing. it was one thing I liked about Jamie Oliver’s show. Real food, cooked with love, attention, flavor. (hopefully some fat) and balance. Sad. and Yuck.

  7. Lampdevil

    Those essay exerpts from the kids are heartbreaking. 🙁

    • katja

      I know! Every one of them though was in favor of the policy, they just don’t know any better. I think we already have evidence of harm…

    • unscrambled

      Agreed. Those essays are heartbreakingly sad. Poor kids! Katja, you’re right on track–this is one of those situations where having the MD behind your name should help. Not that the comments to what you wrote will be anything but off the rails, but still.

  8. Kristy

    What a beautifully constructed analysis and rebuttal of this misguided program! I’m so glad that you keep putting the word out about feeding and eating. Your site and Dr. Satter’s have been like lifelines to me, full of encouragement and sensibility.

    • katja

      thanks. and thanks for your kind words! This work was a life-line to me for feeding my family. I guess I’m a bit of an “evangelist!” Please share as appropriate! We need to counter the avalanche of well-meaning but harmful press and policy…

  9. KellyK

    I think you’re 100% right. This policy seems designed to teach kids a fearful and compulsive approach to food, and like you said, it gives bullies even more ammunition against fat kids.


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